Commentary | Coffee at Consenza Cafe

Public money should not be traded over espressos

Scene: the court room of the Charbonneau Commission. Lino Zambito, former vice president of Quebec construction firm Infrabec, sits behind the microphone to deliver his testimony. “Montreal is a closed market,” he says, addressing the honourable judges. “I submitted bids in Laval, and that was a closed market, too.”

Zambito goes on to describe the racket in detail: each firm would pay the Montreal Mafia 2.5 per cent of the total contract value, minus externalities like taxes. Cash would be sealed into brown Canada Post bags and sent to the middle man, in this case Nicola Milioto, at the Consenza Cafe over coffee.

The best mobster movies – Goodfellas, The Godfather, et cetera – always have the cafe scene. The two Mafiosos meet, discuss life, catch up on family gossip, and down their espressos, and before they part ways one of them utters a euphemism or gestures that reveals their private agenda, hidden behind the public appearance. In these films, Timothy Sun once wrote, “We see the American dream – and in turn, ourselves.”

For the Charbonneau Commission, however, the concerns are very public indeed. In the past months, the anti-corruption squad, comprised of detectives, lawyers, and judges, has uncovered and exposed staggering amounts of corruption in the public-private practices of the Quebec construction industry.

Just a few weeks ago, McGill University’s own Health Centre was raided by Quebec’s anti-corruption unit when officers of Operation Hammer entered the doors early in the morning with search warrants in hand. Since then, the entire investigation has branched into two main inquiries: 1) Construction company SNC-Lavalin’s involvement with bribery and embezzlement and 2) the various staff members who received bribes or embezzled money themselves.

Former director of the McGill University Health Centre Stella Lopreste is the subject of an investigation for alleged fraud of up to $1.6 million. The evidence against the suspects includes spending this money on personal expenses such as luxury clothes, flower deliveries, travel expenses, cellphones, a computer, and much more. The entire investigation, to remind everyone, surrounds a contract to build a new super-hospital that would focus on cancer research. McGill makes no secret of its desire for private money.

Public-private partnerships have been pushed around the world in recent years. In August 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime issued a statement, from its resident anti-corruption expert Giovanni Gallo, that the “public-private partnership is the best way to reconcile diverging perceptions which may generate conflicts and opportunities for corruption…particularly in the area of public procurement, where the two actors interact the most.” The situation in Quebec today flies in the face of this statement.

The crime movie genre has often been interpreted as allegorical of the failure of the American dream, or, in broader terms, the structural failures of the free market. Criminals have come to represent the most ardent believers of said system. They never fail at trying to take any wealth away from the public to support their materialistic fantasies. Corruption and crime, these movies tell us, are acts of entrepreneurial spirit. The desire to take money away from public scrutiny and legal authority: this is the nature of corruption.

The solution for Quebec today is not more public-private collusion, as Gallo would suggest, but a new system where public money may be used in service of the public.

Marcello Ferrara is a U1 English and Geography student. He can be reached at marcello.ferrara@mail.mcgill.ca.


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