Montreal launches anti-corruption unit

Any city employee could be investigated so HR should play important role
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/11/2013

In early January, Montreal formed an anti-corruption unit made up of police officers who have the ability to investigate all aspects of city affairs.

“I am opening the door of the city administration for them,” said Mayor Michael Applebaum at a press conference. “They will be able to look and search everywhere… I want to be perfectly clear: If you’re trying to defraud Montreal and taxpayers, think twice.”

The anti-corruption squad is the first in-house police investigative unit of its kind in Canada, he said. It will consist of about 20 members, mostly experienced investigators, who will have the power to question all city employees and anyone who conducts business with the city.

In 2011, the province of Quebec created an anti-corruption squad. The idea of Montreal having its own unit was first proposed in 2009 and while it may be a few years late, it is still a welcome development, said Richard Bergeron, leader of Projet Montréal, the municipal political party currently in opposition.

“What’s happening in Montreal in the past years for corruption… we figured that we needed the same kind of unit at the municipal level,” he said. “For sure in Montreal, we need such a team.”

In the United States, anti-corruption units are fairly common in big cities with a history of corruption, and they can also be found in a number of states, said Jonathan Drimmer, vice-president and assistant general counsel at Barrick Gold, who is based in Toronto and Washington, D.C.

“Part of the reason why a dedicated unit is important in places where corruption is a problem is it takes a lot of strategy, foresight and potentially resources to crack sophisticated corruption rings,” he said.

Corruption issues in Montreal have made headlines over the past several years. The majority have come from widespread collusion among contractors bidding on public work projects that were aided by corrupt civil servants, engineers and political parties who allegedly obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks, according to media reports.

These allegations have led to the resignation of three Montreal-area mayors.

The anti-corruption squad will be looking into contract matters as well as a wide range of city affairs, including real estate transactions, infrastructure projects and even the purchase of clothing for firefighters.

The unit does not need to receive a complaint before conducting an investigation — it is completely self-sufficient and can use its own judgment to launch an inquiry, said Bergeron.

Depending on the nature of the corruption being investigated, it is sometimes done through a sting operation or informants, said Drimmer.

Because any city employee could be investigated, as well as any company doing business with the city, HR plays an important role.

“It’s good to let everybody know. I would use that to my advantage and say, ‘There is a new task force that’s been created and you should know they (can) look into everything and they have the right to look at your computer and anything you say on it — this is going to be a serious focus of their attention,’” said Drimmer.

The first step in preparing for a potential investigation from an anti-corruption unit is to make sure you don’t have corruption, he said.

“If you have something that doesn’t look right, look into it, investigate it and try to root it out because you want to find that out before the government does — you want to be ahead of the government in figuring out if there’s impropriety that’s going on,” said Drimmer.

If an employee is living beyond his means, it may be a sign corrupt practices are involved, said Donald Bowser, president of Integrity Management, Promoting Accountability and Transparency (IMPACT), a Halifax-based organization focused on establishing good governance and curbing corruption.

“If you look at junior officials who show up with high-end cars, it’s fairly clear. You know their salary, it’s not like they’re winning the lotto 16 times,” he said.

When conducting an internal investigation, an employer may want to use internal resources — such as an in-house legal department — or external resources, such as a law firm or other investigators, said Drimmer.

HR should make sure it has solid discipline practices in place in case an investigation does find corruption. There are numerous ways to handle corruption, depending on how serious it is, including terminating employment, providing more training, issuing a warning or docking pay, said Drimmer.

If a problem is found, it’s important for HR to figure out how the employee did it, how she got away with it and how the company can make sure it doesn’t happen again, he said.

“It’s not just about the employee who committed it. There are typically weaknesses in your processes and controls that allowed the employee to do it,” said Drimmer. “A common mistake is to just think, ‘Oh, we had one bad egg.’”

It’s important for an employer to try and deal with any instances of corruption on its own because, if the government ends up finding it, the company can be subject to lawsuits, said Bowser.

“Companies that engage with the city and are later on accused of corruption can’t really claim they didn’t know that employees were doing this — it’s not realistic,” he said. “It’s the company itself at the end that’s going to be accountable.”

Mechanisms for prevention

To prevent corruption, there should be a mechanism in place for employees to safely report any signs of corruption they may see — which HR is often responsible for administering, said Drimmer. Companies should have a secure complaints hotline and an anti-whistleblower retaliation policy, so people will feel comfortable to speak up.

These procedures may help encourage people to come forward — which is very much needed in Canada. The country has one of the lowest prosecution records in the developed world for corruption and white collar crime, said Bowser.

“Canadians are extremely reluctant to speak about corruption, which is very odd… People just don’t want to talk about it, they want to ignore it, put their heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist,” he said.

“There is a real need for Canadians to wake up to the real levels of corruption.”

To further prevent corruption, an employer should conduct a risk assessment to determine which areas are most vulnerable and then focus on tightening those risks, said Bowser.

HR should make sure there is sufficient training provided to all employees on the company’s fraud and corruption policies, said Drimmer.

This can also include workshops where employees practise handling difficult situations and learn how to detect corruption.

One of the most significant things HR can do to prevent corruption is screen candidates during the hiring process, said Drimmer. It should try to weed out people who have pasts with aspects of fraud or impropriety, as well as people who may be likely to commit corrupt acts, he said.

The City of Montreal is heeding this advice.

“We will be more careful when we hire people, and people who ask for a job at the City of Montreal will know the situation is watched very carefully,” said Bergeron.

“We are cleaning up the place. This is the last brick in the wall — we needed it, it is there now and for the future. I am pretty confident we will not see corruption for the next few years for sure.”

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