If Québec Premier Jean Charest was hoping an election campaign would distract from the Charbonneau Commission that is looking into allegations of corruption in Québec’s construction industry, he was mistaken, as the media showed him this week.

 

 

If Québec Premier Jean Charest was hoping an election campaign would distract from the Charbonneau Commission that is looking into allegations of corruption in Québec’s construction industry, he was mistaken, as the media showed him this week.

Radio-Canada published a report on Wednesday surrounding a brief meeting that Charest had with Eddy Brandone, the former treasurer of FTQ-Construction union, in March 2009. Brandone held that role in the time that Jocelyn Dupuis, former head of the province’s largest construction union, was expensing massive amounts in restaurants — to the tune of more than $125,000 in six months. As CBC reports, a day after a Radio-Canada report detailing Dupuis’ expenses, as well as his alleged links to the mafia — both of which are now among the subjects of public inquiry — the Sûreté du Québec (SQ; Québec’s provincial police) put surveillance on Brandone, who was mentioned in the Radio-Canada report.

On March 6, 2009 SQ followed Brandone to a number of locations, including a public event where Inuit leaders were meeting with provincial and federal government representatives to discuss housing and transportation in Inuit communities. According to the Radio-Canada report, Brandone spoke briefly with Charest at this event.

Shortly after his meeting with Charest, the surveillance of Brandone was called off, Radio-Canada reported. No reason was given for the cancellation of the surveillance and Radio-Canada quotes some members of the SQ who were surprised at the cancellation of the wiretap, saying it was unusual. The SQ was unable to comment on the cancellation, as it is an ongoing investigation. When reached this week, Brandone denied ever meeting with Charest that day, though in 2010, he is reported as saying he met with the Premier for about 30 seconds.

But La Presse's version tells a different story. The SQ called off its surveillance of Brandone because it had the information it had been seeking and there had been no political intervention.

Radio-Canada’s report prompted a harsh reaction from the incumbent Premier, who said people often discuss the ethics of politicians, but they should also scrutinize journalists' ethics.

"The insinuation made by Radio-Canada is clear," The Canadian Press reports Charest as saying in response to a question from a reporter who asked why Charest was questioning the ethics of the journalists.

"You know the insinuation. They're trying to build a link between the fact that I bumped into a guy that day and the fact that it seems — I say 'it seems,' because I don't know — that a tail was cancelled."

At a news conference on Wednesday, Charest denied any involvement or intervention in the SQ’s investigation of Brandone, and said he was not even aware of any police investigation taking place.

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“My conscience is clear. I’m not sure that the same can be said about Radio-Canada today,” The Globe and Mail reported Charest as saying at a news conference on Thursday. Charest also criticized the public broadcaster for its timing of the report. “That news report should have never been made. In an election campaign, it is distracting us from the real issues.”

But given that industry corruption – first in construction, and more recently revealed to be in Montreal’s snow removal industry as well – is among the issues in this election, do Charest’s complaints hold merit?

The Fédération Professionelle des Journalistes du Québec (FPJQ) backed Radio-Canada in a statement yesterday. Marie-Maude Denis and Alain Gravel, the two Radio-Canada reporters behind the report that prompted Charest’s critical response, have done a good job of exposing the corruption and collusion in the construction industry, the statement said. Further, the FPJQ notes, politicians – the Premier included – have no say over journalists’ editorial choices. Journalists must be free to cover issues as they see fit, without incurring the criticism of policy makers, it says.

And perhaps most pertinently, the FPJQ says that the election campaign is precisely the reason the Radio-Canada report is newsworthy; voters are entitled to know that the surveillance of Brandone ceased, and they should be free to draw their own conclusions as to why.

If Radio-Canada had chosen not to run the story, they could have been accused of supporting the Charest government, the FPJQ argues.

But surely, voters should know why the surveillance was called off in order to draw their own conclusions, no?

While Radio-Canada’s report offers no definitive conclusion as to why the SQ pulled its surveillance of Brandone when it did, La Presse’s take on the story does, and it is a simple one: The SQ had found the information it was looking for. According to La Presse, the SQ has said that Brandone’s meeting with Charest is unrelated to what they were looking for that day and that there has been “no political intervention” in the investigation. The SQ was unable to comment further.

But as La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal says, while the Radio-Canada story may have raised a side-show story in the SQ’s calling off of Brandone’s surveillance, it also gets at the real issues that the Charbonneau Commission has been tasked to investigate. “We are at the heart of the concerns of all of Quebec for the last three years: what are the real links between politics, the construction industry and organized crime?” Marissal writes.

But Charest’s attack against the CBC was just that, Marissal says: A counter-attack, not an explanation.