MONTREAL - Quebec's fight against corruption snared some high-profile personalities in 2013, including two well-known mayors who were slapped with serious criminal charges.
Whether 2014 is just as dramatic is unclear as the Charbonneau Commission resumes its public hearings and the province's anti-corruption unit continues to probe criminal activity at various political levels.
Besides then-interim Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum landing in the legal spotlight and gangsterism charges being filed against former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, 2013 saw:
— The province's largest labour federation put under the microscope as its construction wing was shown to essentially be under the control of organized crime.
— The departure of several senior engineering and construction executives after testimony at the Charbonneau inquiry revealed that lucrative contracts were the payoff for clandestine funding that circumvented the province's strict rules.
France Charbonneau's headline-grabbing commission into construction corruption cast a wide net in 2013, with one major player being Ken Pereira, a former Quebec Federation of Labour organizer who blew the whistle on a former boss and his questionable expenses.
The forthright Pereira was the springboard for one of the inquiry's main angles in 2013: how the Mob and the Hells Angels were firmly entrenched in the fabric of one of Quebec's most powerful unions.
Pereira said in an interview he believes corruption is everywhere but that Quebec has been willing to come clean.
"Maybe Quebec has corruption problems, but at least we've had an inquiry, we've admitted it and we've exposed it," Pereira said from Europe, where he was vacationing.
"What's wrong with the rest of Canada is maybe they don't want to see it or want to expose it."
Over six days, Pereira provided a story that even he had trouble believing when he was living it: allegations of inflated expenses and union bosses living high on the hog, with some having very cosy relations with mobsters, bikers and businessmen.
Pereira testified about Jocelyn Dupuis, who was head of the Quebec Federation of Labour's construction wing. Dupuis was shown to be close to Raynald Desjardins, once a close associate of recently deceased mobster Vito Rizzuto.
Pereira also said he frequently saw Dupuis associating with Normand (Casper) Ouimet, a notable Hells Angels member.
Pereira feuded with Dupuis and appropriated receipts that proved the overblown expenses. At one point, Desjardins sat Pereira down at a hotel near Montreal to ask him to put an end to the feuding with Dupuis.
Ostracized by union brass, Pereira eventually handed the bills over to provincial police. Dupuis now faces criminal charges stemming from the expenses.
"It was a bit surreal for me — I went from being a guy who defended workers' rights for 25 years to being a guy whose life was in danger because he had some receipts in his hands," Pereira said.
"Today, the danger is still there, there are people who lost a lot of money...but I believe that I'm less scared of the Mob than the FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labour) was of the media."
Pereira was blackballed in Quebec and has worked in Alberta since 2009. The commission and friends have told him he was brave for speaking out.
"Maybe I was courageous, but at the time it was the right thing to do," Pereira said. "I'm just a normal guy who was on a mission and that's it."
Where the province's high-profile inquiry goes in 2014, its final full calendar year, remains to be seen. Charbonneau said in December the probe will continue studying organized crime in the construction industry in January before switching to other topics of interest.
The nature of those topics would be made clear in the future, she added.
Charbonneau must submit an interim report to the Quebec government by the end of January 2014. And a final report will come in April 2015.
One observer hopes the inquiry starts to piece together the various strands of testimony.
"I think eventually they will have to tie everything together and show how all this is related," said Charles-Maxime Panaccio, a University of Ottawa law professor who has followed the hearings.
"With respect to all these different topics, what links them together is organized crime trying to make money out of certain processes relating to construction contracts," Panaccio said.
"We haven't seen this big-picture type of discussion," he said, adding he hopes some of this would be in the interim report.
For his part, Pereira says he has confidence in the inquiry, even though he believes the Quebec government "needs to have a bit more guts" for real change to happen.
There have been changes, however, including tougher rules for doling out contracts and increased scrutiny on political donations. The province's anti-corruption unit made 66 arrests in 2013.
One of the biggest names to be nabbed was Vaillancourt, whose charges include gangsterism. Also swept up was Applebaum, who was eventually charged with fraud stemming from his time as a borough mayor.
Panaccio said the inquiry's findings will be key to making progress.
"There will never really be enough time to get to the bottom of everything, but I think the commission recognizes that," Panaccio said.
The public portion of the inquiry is slated to resume on Jan. 13.
(By Sidhartha Banerjee)