What the heck is going on at city hall?
In Montreal, Laval, Boisbriand, Mascouche—just about everywhere that big money is being spent on infrastructure—it appears that inflated prices, as much as double the market value, kickbacks to civil servants and elected officials and payoffs to political parties and the Mafia have become standard practice.
After explosive testimony of collusion and corruption at the Charbonneau Commission, one wonders how a seemingly well-entrenched system had been allowed to continue without elected officials doing something about it?
Willful blindness, incompetence or something more pernicious?
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We posed the question to Alexander Norris, a vocal city council member representing the opposition Projet Montréal in Mile End.
Norris, 51, is uniquely placed to observe and pass judgment on how our city is being managed. He built a national reputation with his pioneering investigative reporting while at The Gazette. Digging is his game.
Most notable was his work on visual lottery terminals, the “crack cocaine” of the gambling industry, which he determined were disproportionately located in areas of poverty. In addition, a substantial number of owners had shady backgrounds.
One of these major proprietors was Tony Accurso, the Quebec construction magnate who faces a string of criminal charges and whose companies are under the gun at the Charbonneau inquiry.
Living on de l’Esplanade with his wife, journalist Alison McGregor, and young boys, Norris says he was attracted to Projet Montréal because “it was a clean party, financed by grass-roots fundraising, with small-business support.”
“It wasn’t machine politics of the sort you see with Gérald Tremblay’s party, where there are clear ties with the suppliers of the city, who bankroll the parties and look for favours in return.”
The pattern repeats in Laval. Days after our interview, reporter Linda Gyulai revealed in The Gazette that the owners, directors and employees of more than 90 companies that do business with the city of Laval made up a majority of the contributors to Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt’s PRO party last year. His homes, office and safety-deposit boxes have been raided by police amid testimony that kickbacks were paid to an intermediary destined for the mayor.
Gyulai also laid bare a contractor-party donor pattern in Montreal when she revealed in 2005 that of the 302 companies whose owners and directors contributed to Tremblay’s party during its first four years, no less than 94 per cent won contracts in such lucrative areas as construction and legal work. At the time, Tremblay denounced her exposé as “intellectually dishonest.”
What is emerging from the commission is a pattern of hugely inflated prices—double the cost for some construction repairs as first estimated by retired city engineer Gilles Surprenant.
He testified he felt threatened, accepted the inflated bids and amassed more than $700,000 in kickbacks as a reward over the years. He denied he got one per cent of each contract, known to construction bosses as “Taxe pour Surprenant (TPS, the French acronym for the provincial sales tax).”
In his testimony, Surprenant corroborated troubling testimony by former contractor Lino Zambito, who said that 2.5 per cent of certain contracts went to the once-powerful Rizzuto crime family, and another three per cent to a source that funneled the money to Tremblay’s party. The Tremblay administration denies this.
During the time of these alleged shenanigans, the Projet Montréal team was busy making important improvements to enhance pedestrian safety and reduce traffic.
Projet Montréal has also been working toward improving the quality of life for residents of the densely populated Plateau Mont Royal and Mile End districts.
Norris is proud of transparency innovations, saying the Plateau is the only borough that publishes its executive summaries—they are prepared by civil servants for voting purposes and posted online. The Plateau and Rosemont-Petit Patrie are the only boroughs that broadcast and archive council proceedings online.
As for Charbonneau, and based on his reporter’s eye and politician’s ear, Norris says “there appears to be an entrenched culture of corruption within the city of Montreal … A lot of what’s coming out from the commission is merely corroborating information we’ve had for some time, from reports of the city’s auditor-general and in the media.”
When it comes to major contributors to Union Montréal, “there appears to be a pattern of quid pro quo—political financing in return for contracts from people connected to the construction industries and major suppliers.”
“Lino Zambito has testified that he was giving money to the mayor’s party and to Louise Harel’s Vision Montréal, expecting contracts in return. That is how the system worked, providing further evidence of a pattern that we have been aware of for years.”
He faults the Tremblay administration for “willful blindness—failing to act to curtail problematic behaviour surrounding him.”
Norris recalled the truncated political career of Benoît Labonté, the once-powerful mayor of downtown borough Ville Marie who crossed over to Harel’s party and was to be her second in command.
“It turned out he had been receiving illicit payments from construction industry bosses, including Tony Accurso.
“Labonté later stated that he had disclosed his concern about Bernard Trépanier (former head of financing for Union Montréal, known as ‘Monsieur trois pour cent’), and then quoted Tremblay as saying, ‘You know, Benoît, in municipal politics, this is all there is (tu sais, Benoît, en politique municipale, à Montréal, c’est juste de ça)’.”
Projet Montréal has banned $1,000-a-head fundraisers. “Our limit is $200 per person and generally it’s $100 per person, and all of that is tax deductible,” Norris said. That is the same amount Union Montréal’s Marvin Rotrand has proposed as the new legal limit for political donations.
Projet Montréal spent one-sixth of what the two major parties spent in the 2009 election, yet won 25 per cent of the popular vote, Norris said. “We’ve shown that you can do politics differently so you don’t spent huge amounts of money and you make yourself less vulnerable to temptations for people who are looking to buy influence.”
Although there is no evidence Tremblay profited personally in any way, Norris cites the fate of three of his closest collaborators over the years who have been formally charged: Martial Filion, Tremblay’s former chief of staff; Frank Zampino, for seven years chairman of the city’s executive committee; and chief fundraiser Bernard Trépanier, all of whom face serious criminal charges.
As a result of the work by investigative reporters and police, bids for construction work in the city and provincially over the past three years have come down, testimony has revealed.
To Norris, “this is just proof that when the media, opposition parties and the auditor-general do their jobs, there can be significant savings for Montreal taxpayers. There are still troubling patterns of collusion in the contracts that come before us at city hall on a regular basis.”
For example, Projet Montréal is systematically voting against contracts to a so-called sidewalk cartel of four companies that bid on repair contracts, and at least two of the four firms’ owners—in charge of Construction Mivela and Paving ATG—have been seen inside the Club Consenza, where the backroom functioned as the Sicilian Mafia “office” in St. Léonard.
Calling for courage, Norris said, “Someone has to put their foot down and say, No!”