February 20, 2012

Organized crime probe hits a wall of silence

An $80,000 federal study into organized crime in the construction industry was plagued by people's refusal to be interviewed - not even when promised anonymity.

Of the 35 organizations contacted by the authors of a newly released federal study, only six responded by putting forward representatives willing to speak.

“Economic Sectors Vulnerable to Organized Crime: Commercial Construction,” was commissioned by Public Safety Canada in 2010 to look at the industry in Quebec and British Columbia.

A final copy obtained by The Canadian Press under the federal Access-to-Information Act, said the study authors tried interviewing contractors, union representatives, provincial prosecutors and law-enforcement agencies.

Twenty-nine of the 35 institutions contacted by the authors either refused the invitation to participate or simply did not respond to the request.

The study was ordered in the midst of corruption controversies in Quebec, where a public inquiry is set to begin. At the same time, the provincial police and the Canada Revenue Agency investigate construction firms.

The final report said some participants feared reprisals or being tainted by association, while others thought the study authors were covertly working for police.

Others, having seen reports about a draft copy of the report being released last year under Access to Information laws, feared their confidentiality could not be guaranteed.

And some were apparently worried about heavy media coverage given to the construction industry in Quebec over the last few years.

“Research into organized crime and the commercial construction sector faces certain difficulties, some general and some specific to the current media exposure this issue has received, especially in the province of Quebec,” said the report, authored by seven academics.

One of the study authors, Ronald Goldstock, wrote that he wasn’t surprised by the silence.

“With the exception of a rebel or two, people are not likely to discuss illegal activity by themselves or others except when they are compelled by court order to do so,” Goldstock said. “And even then, only when law enforcement has sufficient evidence to prosecute them for perjury or contempt for not testifying truthfully.”

Authors were able to put together some information from the 17 people in six different organizations, who did speak.

The study found the Canadian commercial construction sector is at a moderate to high risk of corruption and organized crime.

The study also notes that hard data - prosecutions that show the involvement of organized crime in the Canadian construction sector - “is virtually non-existent.”

The study found two glaring points in the construction process that were most vulnerable to criminal infiltration: the procurement of contracts and project management.

“Our sources indicated that officials responsible for procurement were often uninformed with regard to the cost of construction projects,” the study says. “The lack of accountability and transparency in procurement policies across Canada was also noted.”

In B.C., the problem identified was that many qualified people retired or moved to the private sector, leaving a considerable gap in expertise. In 2001, public agencies in B.C. became responsible for their own procurement.

A more exhaustive study in Quebec, conducted by former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau, which was recently leaked to the media, identified a similar problem. It said government departments had become similarly weakened in that province and overworked bureaucrats could not properly perform their oversight functions.

The release of Ducheaneau’s report last year prompted the provincial government to yield to public pressure to call an inquiry into allegations of corruption, political cronyism and Mob influence over the construction industry. Premier Jean Charest announced plans for an inquiry headed by Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said the government could not immediately comment on the study Monday.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2012

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