QUEBEC — The new head of Quebec's anti-corruption squad is seeking to assure the public he can restore trust in his embattled institution following years of criticism and problems that have marred the reputation of the once-respected police unit.
Frederick Gaudreau, recently appointed by the legislature to a seven-year term, said Wednesday there is still enough fraud and corruption in Quebec to justify the continued existence of his police force, known as UPAC.
UPAC has been criticized for not building cases leading to successful prosecutions, and a government report this year found it lacked officers with the necessary skills to conduct complex investigations into financial crimes.
On Wednesday, Gaudreau held his first news conference since his nomination in early October to present UPAC's annual report. He had to account for his recent decision to close a years-long investigation into ex-Liberal party fundraisers alleged to have pocketed millions in kickbacks over real estate deals.
"From certain points of view, we could consider it a failure," he told reporters about the case. But, he said, there were important elements learned from the case that he hoped to carry forward in future investigations.
Following his nomination to the job, Gaudreau asked his team to review all open cases started under his predecessor, Robert Lafreniere, who quit unexpectedly Oct. 1, 2018.
"My objective is for there to be quality cases being brought to prosecutors," Gaudreau said. "I made the decision because (the case) didn't meet that standard."
Premier Francois Legault told reporters earlier in the day he thought all Quebecers were "a little frustrated, shocked, and would like explanations" regarding Gaudreau's decision. Legault said he too, would like to hear an explanation from Gaudreau.
The UPAC head responded to Legault in his news conference, saying he understood the frustrations but he has "a duty to preserve investigation techniques."
UPAC's investigative methods were also called into question in September, when a judge threw out a case against a former high-ranking member of Montreal's city council because electronic surveillance listened to by investigators included conversations between the accused and his lawyers.
Frank Zampino, Montreal's former executive committee chairman, had been charged with fraud and breach of trust.
And the only major provincial politician charged with a crime following a UPAC probe, former deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau, had more than half of the criminal charges against her dropped last August.
Normandeau, a cabinet minister under Liberal premier Jean Charest, was arrested in 2016. The Crown intends to proceed to trial on three counts, including breach of trust and fraud against the government. It was Charest who created UPAC in 2011, following intense pressure on his government to tackle corruption in the construction industry.
Gaudreau said he has confidence in his investigators, but he said he recognizes there are still challenges finding talent. It doesn't help, he said, that his force can't hire officers directly but can only be lent investigators from other police forces.
He said he is working with the government to adopt legal reforms allowing UPAC to directly hire investigators.
Despite the setbacks and criticisms, Gaudreau rejected allegations his force has only caught small fish.
He pointed to the case involving the McGill University Health Centre, in which a former manager of the project pleaded guilty last year to accepting a $10-million bribe in return for helping engineering firm SNC-Lavalin win the contract to build the hospital.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2019.
— By Giuseppe Valiante in Montreal
The Canadian Press