Demands intensify for inquiry into ties between Mafia, construction, politics

QUEBEC - Political pressure mounted on

the Quebec government as calls intensified

for a public inquiry into ties

between politicians, construction companies,

and organized crime.

Opposition parties tabled a motion in

the provincial legislature Wednesday

demanding an inquiry.

John Gomery - who led the historic inquiry into

the federal sponsorship scandal - was

omnipresent on Quebec's TV news

networks also demanding a probe.

The calls for a new inquiry followed

incendiary reports of the Italian Mafia and

construction companies colluding

to drive up the price tag

on public-works projects in the province.

Premier Jean Charest fended off furious

accusations from opponents

who demanded to know

why he'd resist such a demand.

"Why are you in politics?"

Opposition Leader Pauline Marois

asked him Wednesday during a debate.

"Why is the premier in politics?

To serve his own interests

or to serve the people of Quebec?"

Charest angrily shot back that

Marois was lowering the level

of debate in the chamber, and said he'd let

the police investigate

before making any decisions about a probe.

"There are investigations - and I'm using

the plural here - that have been going

on for quite some time," the premier replied.

"We need to give police the chance

to do their job. And if we (eventually)

need to go farther, we will go farther."

Gomery, who has a vested interest

in the debate as head of campaign

fundraising for a Montreal municipal

opposition party, was back

in the limelight Wednesday.

He dismissed the premier's explanation

as the classic politician's response

to a corruption scandal.

Indeed it's the identical response

given by the federal Liberal party

until Paul Martin hired Gomery,

a now-retired Quebec judge,

to lead what would become

the politically explosive sponsorship probe.

The push for an inquiry comes

as news reports allege the Mafia

has been co-operating with

construction firms to jack up

the prices of public-works projects.

Experts on the mob say

the practice exists all over the country.

The timing of the reports could hardly

be more awkward: Ottawa and

the provinces are now showering

the country with billions in construction

spending in the most expensive

infrastructure program in Canadian history.

The news emanating from Quebec

has tossed the current Montreal

mayoral race into disarray with

the taint of scandal hitting both

city hall and its main opposition party.

The repercussions of the corruption

allegations have quickly

exploded beyond

the Nov. 1 municipal election.

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson

has been asked whether he might

call a federal inquiry and has

not ruled out the possibility.

And Charest's government, which

has weathered the recession with

its popularity unscathed, suddenly

finds itself being dragged into

a corruption controversy

by increasingly aggressive opposition attacks.

In addition to demanding a probe,

the opposition handed out old newspaper

clippings Wednesday about

a Charest vacation to Mexico

in 2000, paid for by

a construction-industry association.

The governing Liberals countered

that Marois has refused to disclose

donors who helped finance

her leadership bid starting in 2004.

The debate intensified last week

following a report on

the French-language network.

It cited a bureaucrat-turned-whistleblower

who claimed the Italian Mafia

controlled 80 per cent of Montreal's

road-construction contracts,

and said contracts cost

35 per cent higher in the city

than they should cost.

The network also interviewed

members of the construction

industry who reportedly

confirmed the practice.

They said bosses of the city's

so-called 'Fabulous 14' construction

companies would collude to pick

the winner of every public

infrastructure tendering process.

One member of the consortium

would submit a bid at an artificially

high price - then nobody else would

submit a lower bid, so that

different companies could

take their turn at the public trough.

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