The number of denunciations has dropped since Montreal’s Office of the Inspector General was created almost a decade ago, but the city’s corruption watchdog says its investigative techniques are evolving because the schemes have gotten more sophisticated.
That’s the message of the latest annual report from Montreal Inspector General Brigitte Bishop, which was tabled at a city council meeting on Monday. The greater onus on surveillance and “upstream” checking in 2022 by the inspector general’s office, known by its French acronym “BIG,” coincided with a series of court rulings that confirmed the BIG’s legitimacy and powers, the report notes.
“Not only have we refined our investigative processes in the wake of the increased sophistication of the schemes uncovered, but also our own procedures fall within a mostly new area of law in which we are seen as trailblazers,” Bishop, who is now in the final year of her mandate, writes in the 2022 annual report.
She is the second person to hold the position of Montreal inspector general since the bureau was created in 2014 from the fallout of corruption scandals that rocked city hall. Montreal was the first city in Quebec to create an office of inspector general to oversee the city’s contracting process and the execution of contracts.
The BIG, which has a budget of $4.5 million and a staff of 31, says it opened 123 cases in 2022, closed 89 cases, met with 591 witnesses and carried out 65 surveillance operations. As well, the BIG carried out 120 training sessions for municipal staff.
The BIG also spent a part of 2022 in court, as legal challenges have been filed by municipal contractors who were temporarily barred from doing business with the city or saw their contract terminated following an investigation and a report by the BIG.
However, interim rulings in two cases last year confirmed that the process followed by the BIG to arrive at its conclusions respects the principle of procedural fairness.
In a third case, the court recognized the capacity of the BIG to take legal action. In that case, a contractor and its principal directors filed an application for judicial review against the city’s decision to terminate the company’s contracts and declare it ineligible to bid for two years following a damning report by the BIG. The plaintiffs are also seeking to have the court invalidate sections of the city bylaw on contract management.
The hearing on the merits of the case is scheduled for March 2024.
The BIG wasn’t targeted by the contractor’s legal action, however a judge granted the BIG’s request for intervenor status. Like municipal auditors general, the court recognized that while the BIG doesn’t have a legal personality deriving from a law, it can take legal action within the framework of its mandate.
In a fourth case, the court upheld the BIG’s immunity from disclosure of information and confidential documents. In that case, a contractor had sought to have a judge compel the BIG to disclose the evidence it had collected for a report that led the city to terminate the company’s contracts to clean sumps and sewers.
The company wanted the court to authorize access to several elements of the BIG’s investigation file, including recordings of witnesses, written statements and surveillance evidence. The BIG intervened in court and successfully opposed the request, invoking a section of the city charter that holds that the BIG and its employees cannot be compelled to disclose any information obtained in the exercise of their functions.
The inspector general is appointed by a two-thirds vote of city council. Unlike other civil servants, the inspector general doesn’t report to the city executive committee. As well, the BIG’s budget is protected by law.
The annual report says the BIG received 198 denunciations in 2022, compared with 212 in 2021 and 252 in 2020. Complaints related to COVID-19 were removed from those figures.
The BIG received 308 denunciations in its first year of operation in 2014. The number fluctuated between 260 and 296 from 2015 to 2019, and dropped to 252 in 2020.
The proportion of tips coming from citizens has dropped, which Bishop notes in the annual report is “a cause to wonder about the accessibility and visibility of (Montreal’s) whistleblower line.”
In 2022, 14 per cent of denunciations came from citizens. Half came from contractors, sub-contractors and former or current municipal employees.
The BIG itself made up the rest, saying it is increasingly initiating cases by its own preventive surveillance.
The BIG started conducting spot checks on construction sites, notably roadwork, before last year.
And in 2022, the BIG initiated another pilot project. The BIG started systematically checking public calls for tenders — before the contracts are awarded — to look for problematic specifications that might limit competition.
In one case, that monitoring allowed the BIG to identify a technical error in a call for tenders that was quickly remedied. In other cases, the spot checks allowed the BIG to correct specifications that it says would have limited the pool of potential bidders.
In one example, the BIG detected experience clauses in a call for tenders for professional services to renovate a building that required potential bidders to have already carried out a project worth at least $20 million even though the contract up for tenders was estimated to be worth only $3 million. An addenda was issued that lowered the dollar value in the experience clause, which the BIG says opened the competition to a larger pool of bidders.
Also during 2022, the BIG issued five much-publicized reports to council resulting from investigations.
In one of the cases, the Société de transport de Montréal was found to have committed several ethical breaches in awarding three consulting contracts valued at $1.7 million to an outside firm to manage group insurance plans.
In another investigation, the BIG found “major irregularities” in the city’s awarding of a $15.9-million information technology contract to provide email services and other office-related functions, leading it to recommend the city terminate the deal as soon as possible.
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