QUEBEC – The Quebec government has left open the possibility of holding a corruption inquiry after two years of steadfast refusal to do so.
The scandal-battered Charest government has stood pat in the face of widespread public outcry and persistent political pressure to call a probe.
But the provincial transport minister said Tuesday he wasn’t excluding the possibility of a closed-door inquiry.
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Pierre Moreau said he wanted to hear more about the idea from the man who first floated it – Jacques Duchesneau, head of the province’s anti-collusion unit.
“Does this work for us? I’m not excluding anything,” said Moreau, one of two cabinet ministers to discuss the possibility.
Duchesneau suggested a closed-door inquiry would be a quick, easy way to start investigating claims of rampant corruption in the construction industry.
He made the comment during an appearance on a popular weekend talk show and elaborated on the idea in a suspense-filled appearance Tuesday at the Quebec legislature.
He said a closed-door probe would be less disruptive to police investigations than a standard public inquiry.
Duchesneau produced a devastating report that alleges crime groups like the Mafia, the construction industry and a weak civil service are all responsible for inflating the price of public-works projects.
And, in perhaps the most damning part of his report, the former Montreal police chief stated that political parties receive illegal donations from the expanded profits.
Duchesneau laid out details of his vision for an inquiry during his appearance Tuesday at a legislature hearing in Quebec City.
He expressed hope that things might improve in Quebec and insisted it was not too late to heal a gangrenous construction industry.
In a half-hour introductory declaration, Duchesneau used the expression “not normal” several times to describe various aspects of the wide-ranging scheme.
Duchesneau blamed the provincial government for allowing the Transport Department to wither and lose its best experts to private industry.
He accused the department of becoming a “master of subcontracting” that abdicated oversight of construction projects to engineering firms with a vested interest.
And the construction industry, he said, has friends in low places.
His report said groups like the Mafia and bikers not only use construction companies to launder money – but also act as enforcers for favoured firms.
“It is not normal that many companies in the construction industry have ties to organized crime,” Duchesneau said Tuesday. “Organized crime is not simply a parasite but an actual state actor.”
The result, he said, is that Quebecers pay too much for too few services.
The money from public-works projects winds up switching hands and some of it ultimately gets kicked over as contributions to political parties at the municipal and provincial level.
In Quebec, donations from companies to political parties have been illegal for almost 35 years. So are donations over $1,000. But his report suggests parties make a mockery of the law through various illegal tactics.
On Tuesday, Duchesneau sought to dispel the image of drug-traffickers stuffing wads of cash into the briefcases of party bosses.
The modern Mafia has graduated to new levels of respectability, he said. Today’s Mob is run by pillars of the business community and considered respectable by general society, he said.
The people now pulling the strings are active in their communities and present at political party fundraisers – because, Duchesneau said, they’re always looking for powerful friends.
“They’ve graduated from Secondary 5 to doctorates,” Duchesneau said of how the Mafia has evolved since the 1970s.
“It’s sad, but it’s the hard reality… We’re talking about a parallel system … where money, slowly but surely, makes its way into the political world.”
The provincial elections watchdog has already met with Duchesneau and plans to investigate his claims.
Duchesneau says it won’t be easy to loosen the influence of crime in public life.
He said today’s criminals have such tremendous wealth that the state can hardly compete:”No police service will ever have the means these people have,” said Duchesneau, who once headed the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.
That’s why all of society needs to rise up and speak out – with an inquiry serving as an ideal vehicle, he said.
His ideal inquiry would carry two phases: first, a private one, then possibly a public one.
The initial phase would quietly amass evidence of the problem, then the public portion would examine solutions, he said, citing Australian inquiries as a model.
He said he personally witnessed over the last year how sources will be much more forthcoming with information if they believe their identity will be protected.
“Witnesses behind closed doors will be very, very voluble,” he said. But in public, he said, “they forget names.”
He said 17 cases from his research have already been sent to police for investigation, four more than the number previously cited.
But he said it will take a public inquiry and not just a criminal probe to restore public trust. He added that things could still change in Quebec.
“I will tell you, no, it’s not too late.”
As an example, he said a year’s negative publicity about corruption in Quebec had already appeared to scare some crooked actors into flying a little straighter.
He estimates the province has saved almost $350 million in construction costs over the last 18 months, compared with what projects had been costing previously.
MOUNT ASSINIBOINE PROVINCIAL PARK, B.C. – The stories pour out of Sara Renner at Assiniboine Lodge.
Thousands of guests have stayed at the backcountry lodge during its 83-year history. But for Renner, Assiniboine feels like her home.
Renner, 35, is a three-time Olympian and silver medallist in cross-country skiing, now retired.
Her parents Sepp and Barb have operated Assiniboine Lodge for B.C. Parks since 1983, when Renner was seven years old.
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The lodge and its outbuildings are currently under renovation. Seeing the changes in “the old gal,” as Renner calls it, sparks a flood of personal memories, but she also relishes telling colourful stories handed down to her.
Canadian singer Ian Tyson once worked at the lodge as a horse wrangler and used the bunkhouse door for target practice with his knife. His name is still carved in that door.
Renner’s father Sepp got so fed up with the martens loudly mating below their family cabin floor and disturbing their sleep, he fired a shot through the floor.
Growing up, Renner spent her summers and winter vacations playing and skiing in the shadow of Mount Assiniboine. “The ‘Boine” is also called the “Matterhorn of the Rockies” because its pinnacle peak juts 3,618 metres into the sky.
“Where is my heart? It’s here,” Renner says. “My summers, I have such great memories of playing in the woods with my siblings, flying kites in the meadows, hiking up peaks.”
Today, high winds send clouds streaming across the sky on both sides of Mount Assiniboine. The peak remains shrouded, however, with an occasional tantalizing hint of its majesty.
This environment fostered an independence in the Renner children, not to mention that it laid the foundation for Sara Renner’s athletic career.
Renner recalls hiking out to Canmore, Alta., almost 30 kilometres away, at age seven along with nine-year-old sister Natalie and brother Andre, 11. It was fall and time to go back to school.
People they met on the trail were aghast the Renners were without their parents. There was a call from social services waiting when they arrived back in town.
Renner says she stopped talking about her Assiniboine adventures at school because her classmates didn’t believe her.
“It was just so out there, that you would hike 50 kilometres and see a grizzly and it was no big deal,” she says.
Renner’s winter days at Assiniboine meant putting on her skis as soon as she stepped out the door, lest she sink up to her chin in snow. Going to the outhouse, skis on. Heading to the toboggan hill, skis on.
“Assiniboine formed me as an athlete,” she says.
Renner admits she felt uncomfortable talking about herself as a world-class skier during her career. She feels no restraint when it comes to Assiniboine. Her husband, alpine skier Thomas Grandi, proposed to her at Assiniboine and the couple was married there.
Renner’s history is tied closely to Assiniboine, but hers is just one thread among the many in this place.
Assiniboine Lodge is west of Canmore just over the Alberta-B.C. border in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park.
It is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, according to Renner, it’s the oldest backcountry ski lodge in the Canadian Rockies.
“It’s like you’re walking into a museum,” Renner says. “You can feel the creaks.
“It’s Canadian backcountry history. It’s Canadian ski history. It’s some of the most interesting people in this country that have had adventures here, that have had great miserable failures that have become great stories.”
There was a time when the only way in was on skis or on horseback. With no television, Renner recalls performing skits to entertain guests in the evening.
Horses once brought all supplies in and Renner was terrified of the motley crew of cowboys handling them.
“You kept a wide berth and we actually played tricks on them,” Renner said, before relating she put horse manure in their chewing tobacco. “That was our revenge and they never noticed.”
Assiniboine’s horse operations ceased several years ago. Guests now arrive by helicopter, in hiking boots or on skis. Hiking or skiing in usually means overnighting on the trail. Getting there in one day on foot requires exceptional fitness.
Guests stay either at the lodge and its cabins, the adjacent Naiset Huts or camp at the campground at nearby Lake Magog.
When the operating lease for Assiniboine Lodge came up for tender every five years, the Renner family held their breath in fear they would lose it. But the Renners have and will continue to run Assiniboine.
Sepp and Barb are easing themselves out of the lodge’s operations, but brother Andre and his business partner Claude Duchesne have won the bid to oversee the lodge for the next 20 years.
The lodge is currently undergoing a delicate and unique renovation. The foundation was failing badly and B.C. Parks has invested about $1.5 million in restoring it while also expanding the basement, kitchen and breezeway.
In order to preserve the rustic facade, the main lodge was rolled onto the meadow in front of its original location in order to rebuild the foundation.
Helicopters flew in building supplies, but a cement mixer was out of the question. So hundreds of bags of concrete mix came by air.
“All of that was hand-mixed,” said Glen Campbell of B.C. Parks. “The foundations, the basement, the floor, were mixed by the construction crew. Not easy to find crews who are capable of doing that.”
The isolation and harsh conditions attracted work crews and project managers who embrace adventure. An engineer who worked on P.E.I.’s Confederation Bridge volunteered a few weeks of his time on the project.
The renovation, which began in May, is a race against Mother Nature. Crew were making the most of the recent warm weather to complete the exterior before the snows come. The lodge is scheduled to be fully operational again by June 2012.
“There’s the unique challenges of operating at this elevation, in this environment and dealing with trying to preserve the integrity of the buildings at the same time,” Campbell said.
Erling Strom, a Norwegian, worked with the Canadian Pacific Railway to build Assiniboine Lodge in 1928 and was its operator for the first 47 years.
When Renner and teammate Becki Scott won silver in team pursuit at the 2006 Olympics, Renner broke her ski pole during the race and was rescued by a Norwegian coach, who quickly handed a replacement.
On Renner’s next trip into Assiniboine, she was astounded when she realized that a broken ski pole had always been the emblem of the lodge.
“I came back in the summer and I noticed that the brand of Assiniboine was a broken ski pole,” Renner said. “On the back of furniture, engraved in walls, was this emblem of the broken ski pole.
“It was an incredible coincidence that this place that is such a part of me followed me through my ski career and the story of my career was this broken ski pole.”
Seeing the renovation near completion, Renner is confident Assiniboine will retain its colourful history and authenticity.
“At the beginning I was worried, because we wanted our old gal taken care of,” Renner says. “The important part is that it looks and it feels the same.
“You know it’s going to be good for the next 100 years. So I come back here and my heart soars.”
CINCINNATI – Advocates for U.S. atomic workers sickened by radiation exposure say they’re stunned that a federal claims training manual uses fictional characters’ names, including an apparent reference to the disfigured villain of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” horror movies.
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Deborah Jerison said she recently received the Labor Department manual in response to a Freedom of Information request made months earlier. Her late father worked at a now-defunct nuclear weapons plant in Miamisburg, Ohio. She heads a group that helps former atomic workers and their families pursue federal occupational illness compensation claims.
The manual she says she received uses case names derived from TV and movies, such as claimant “Freddie Krueger,” spelled slightly different than the Freddy in the “Nightmare” series. The Krueger in the manual is reported as dying on Oct. 31 – Halloween. The example suffered from “depression, dementia and skin cancer.”
Jerison, whose physicist father James Goode died in 1960, said she didn’t like seeing someone in a situation similar to his being depicted that way.
“This is a very dark subject and I can see where people would use humour to get through it, but this is bad,” she said.
Messages were left seeking a Labor Department response.
Another claimant is called Jack Bauer, the hero of TV’s “24” drama. A pathologist is called Hannibal Lechter, an apparent reference to the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter of books and movies. TV doctors treating patients in the case studies include Dr. Amanda Bentley, a character on the series “Diagnosis: Murder, and Dr. Marcus Welby, who was a genial family practitioner on an ABC drama.
David Manuta wrote to the Labor Department as a member of the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, saying the references are examples of continued disrespect for claimants. The chemist worked at a Cold War-era uranium enrichment plant in southern Ohio.
He said Tuesday that he knows that “the younger generations” like to use humour, but he said it was out of place.
“It’s absolutely offensive for those of us who have handled those nuclear materials,” he said.
Jerison’s father worked at The Mound plant that made triggers and detonators for nuclear weapons. She said she helped her mother pursue a claim for years, but the $175,000 in compensation didn’t arrive until after her mother’s death. About three years ago, she used part of that money that had been divided among Goode’s children to start the non-profit Energy Employees Claimant Assistance Project.
She had requested the claims training manual to gain information about the process from the government side. The compensation program was established in 2001, but it’s unclear when the manual was published; its 24 chapters take trainees from the history of the nuclear energy to step-by-step instruction in conducting a claims hearing.
The manual’s use of fictional names was first reported by the Dayton Daily News.
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KIEV, Ukraine – The abuse of office charges against former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are unfounded and absurd, her lawyers declared Wednesday, asking the court to acquit her and release her from jail.
Tymoshenko, now the country’s top opposition leader, is accused of violating legal procedures in the signing of a natural gas import contract with Russia in 2009. Prosecutors have asked the court to sentence her to seven years in prison and bar her from occupying government posts for three years.
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Tymoshenko maintains her innocence and says the trial has been orchestrated by her archenemy, President Viktor Yanukovych, in order to bar her from future elections as a convicted felon.
The United States and the European Union have also sharply criticized the trial as politically motivated and officials in Brussels have warned that jailing Tymoshenko may cost Ukraine a landmark partnership agreement with the European Union.
Tymoshenko, 50, a charismatic but divisive figure, maintains her innocence and says as prime minister, she didn’t need any special permission for the deal. She has been in custody since her arrest nearly two months ago on charges of contempt of court.
Tymoshenko’s defence lawyer Yuri Sukhov said in his closing speech at the trial that prosecutors have failed to prove her guilt.
Prosecutors have also asked the court to fine Tymoshenko an equivalent of $190,000 (€140,000) for the damages she allegedly caused the state by signing the contract at a price they believe to be inflated. Another Tymoshenko attorney, Olexandr Plakhotnyuk, dismissed that request as absurd, saying prosecutors have failed to provide evidence for the alleged damages.
Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, issued yet another warning to Kyiv over the case Wednesday.
“We underline to Ukrainian authorities the need for respect for the rule of law incorporating fair, impartial and independent legal process,” she said. “We also know the danger of provoking any perception that judicial measures are used selectively and we stress the importance of assuring the maximum transparency of investigations, prosecutions and trials.”
Hopes for Tymoshenko’s release were dimmed Wednesday after it became clear that legal reforms proposed by Yanukovych apparently would not affect Tymoshenko’s case. Yanukovych had floated the idea of decriminalizing certain economic crimes, but the text of his bill posted on parliament’s website Wednesday contained no mention of Tymoshenko’s charge.
Yanukovych’s spokeswoman Darka Chepak confirmed to The Associated Press that Tymoshenko’s case will not be affected by the proposed change.
Raf Casert contributed to this report from Brussels.