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Sorry, that's off limits: Quebec inquiry says it won't explore federal parties

Oct 17, 2012 05:30 pm | Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL - If Canadian taxpayers were hoping that the corruption inquiry now rocking Quebec might also explore federal political parties, they might be out of luck.

That's because officials at the inquiry have now explicitly stated that federal politics is none of their business while, in Ottawa, Elections Canada wouldn't confirm Wednesday whether it planned to follow up on any of the explosive testimony emerging at the probe.

A spokesman for the inquiry told The Canadian Press that any question about federal politics could be ruled out of bounds because it exceeded the mandate of the provincial probe now exploring illegal party financing, corruption and Mafia ties in the construction industry.

He said witnesses could even be interrupted if they tried discussing a subject deemed off-limits — such as the financing of federal political parties.

So what might people across Canada do if they want to know whether cost overruns, collusion schemes, Mafia ties or illegal party financing have infected politics at the federal level or anywhere else outside Quebec?

Richard Bourdon, a spokesman for the Charbonneau inquiry, offered a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: "You'd need another commission," he said in an interview.

"It's very clear that we're not going to touch the federal sphere."

Bourdon did say that the commission would alert the appropriate authorities if it gathered any pertinent details about federal wrongdoing through the phone line and email address created to receive tips from the public.

Meanwhile in Ottawa, Elections Canada, when asked whether it might examine some of the information being laid out at the inquiry, explained Wednesday that it has a no-comment policy on potential investigations by the Commissioner of Canada Elections.

The issue of federal ties is not hypothetical.

Allegations with federal implications have surfaced during the inquiry, but only peripherally and without being explored further.

The inquiry has already:

—Revealed Mafia ties to companies that competed for federally funded projects.

—Heard that a man promoted by the Prime Minister's Office as its favoured candidate to run the Port of Montreal was allegedly involved in a criminal corruption scheme.

—Heard allegations about the existence of an illegal political fundraising system that was controlled, municipally and provincially, by engineering companies that were also active in political financing at the federal level.

And the inquiry has just barely gotten underway.

A star witness has testified that Robert Abdallah, whom the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper once promoted as its preferred candidate to run the Port of Montreal, played a role in the corruption schemes that were rampant in Montreal.

Abdallah was accused during testimony of participating in a kickback system when he was the top civil servant at the City of Montreal. He has strongly denied the allegation from witness Lino Zambito, a former construction boss who wrapped up his eight-day appearance Wednesday.

Zambito's statement echoed in the House of Commons, where the federal government was forced to fend off opposition queries about its relationship with Abdallah. The Tories stressed that, in the end, he didn't get the port job.

The inquiry also heard Zambito describe an elaborate and illegal political financing system at both the provincial and municipal levels.

The ex-construction boss said bigger engineering companies frequently demanded that he deliver cash donations to provincial parties in amounts far exceeding the legal fundraising limit.

Zambito said he would camouflage such donations by breaking them into smaller amounts and filtering them through friends, family and employees.

Were industry players active in fundraising at the federal level?

Did they play a similar role there?

These are questions the inquiry might never address. The inquiry's 25-page mandate description includes a relatively vague reference to examining "the financing of political parties," but Bourdon said the commission has made it clear that it does not interpret federal parties as being part of that role.

What Elections Canada records do show is that a Lino Zambito made numerous donations totalling more than $7,000 to the Liberal Party of Canada between 2004 and 2010.

A recent Canadian Press investigation also showed that dozens of employees at some of the engineering firms implicated in ongoing construction scandals have donated to the federal Conservatives, and to a lesser extent the Liberals.

A burst of donations to the Conservative party from employees at the scandal-plagued companies coincided with a 2009 fundraiser in Montreal at which Harper appeared.

Sources told The Canadian Press at the time that Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos was one of the key organizers of that event.

Before entering the federal Parliament, Housakos was the chief fundraiser for Quebec's now-defunct ADQ party. He also worked, briefly, for a subsidiary of the engineering firm BPR.

Housakos denied playing a role in the 2009 event.

At the time of that event, the federal government was looking to spend $4 billion on construction-ready infrastructure projects as part of its $47-billion economic stimulus program.

These funds were largely transferred to the provinces, which in turn made the cash available to municipalities. In other words, Ottawa was not the one writing cheques to companies performing much of the infrastructure work — that was done at the municipal or provincial level.

As the Quebec scandals grew in 2009, Canada's then-public safety minister Peter Van Loan said there was no evidence of federal stimulus money going to the Mafia.