Analysis: Time to face Montreal’s culture of corruption

Photo by Makaristos

I met a city councillor friend at a play this winter who tried to minimize the explosive testimony at the Charbonneau inquiry into collusion and corruption in Montreal’s construction industry.

“I don’t believe half of what is being said,” remarked the councilor, who is considered progressive and honest.

Unfortunately for my friend, if even half of what is being recounted in the hearings is corroborated, it indicates that a culture of corrupt practices has been allowed to grow for more than a decade in the Census Metropolitan Area of Montreal, which covers 3.8 million people, and the good people in government have done nothing to stop it.

This system links construction firms, often with Mafia ties, and major engineering offices to illegal practices by elected and high-ranking municipal officials and managers in Montreal, Laval and rapidly growing off-island communities.

In the spring, when hearings were extended into 2015, evidence surfaced that illegal campaign donations by major engineering firms had been made to provincial Liberal and Parti Québécois campaign coffers.

Corrupt practices involving municipalities included rigged contracts to enable Mafia payoffs, brazen cash kickbacks to elected officials and managers, illegal campaign contributions, limiting competition for construction contracts to a favoured few with the right connections, and threats to discourage competition.

This criminal system has developed in a moral and ethical vacuum, as well-paid officials participated in or tolerated corrupt practices and whistle-blowers have been virtually non-existent—except for the courageous few who leaked information anonymously to the media.

Among the most egregious examples: former city of Montreal engineer Gilles Surprenant said he accepted more than $730,000 in kickbacks from a dozen contractors who submitted inflated bids.

Former city of Montreal engineer Luc Leclerc admitted he had accepted more than $500,000 in kickbacks from construction firms.

He also admitted accepting vacations, hockey tickets and home renovations and described a golf vacation with reputed Mafia kingpin Vito Rizzuto, whom he called “charming and funny.”

When these revelations are considered in parallel with raids and arrests by the Quebec Provincial Police anti-corruption unit and criminal charges laid, what is unfolding is the biggest corruption scandal in Quebec.

The depressing testimony and spate of resignations of elected officials, including mayors Gérald Tremblay and Michael Applebaum of Montreal, mayor Gilles Vaillancourt of Laval and high-ranking managers, appear to justify the 2010 Maclean’s Magazine cover story calling Quebec the most corrupt province.

Vaillancourt, alleged to be ringleader who operated a system of collusion and bribery from 1996 to 2010, was indicted on 12 charges, including conspiracy, fraud, influence peddling, breach of trust and gangsterism.

Applebaum, who replaced Tremblay, has been indicted on 14 charges, including fraud, corruption, breach of trust and conspiracy. Former city councilor Saulie Zajdel faces five counts of breach of trust, fraud, corruption and secret commissions.

Before the Charbonneau hearings started, Frank Zampino, Tremblay’s former right-hand man as executive committee chairman, had been charged with fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust as the mastermind of a scheme to favour one company in the awarding of a $300-million contract.

Certainly, this inquiry dwarfs in its impact and as a system the findings of the Cliche Commission into violence in the construction industry held in 1974, which boiled down to the use of violence by four affiliates of the Quebec Federation of Labour to monopolize jobs and exclude workers who joined non-QFL unions.

Even the Sponsorship Scandal, in which the federal Liberals siphoned off funds to promote federalism in Quebec after the 1995 referendum, pales in comparison.

The system of corrupt practices laid out before the Charbonneau Commission includes testimony that engineering firms got around restrictions on political party donations by corporations and unions. Eight of Quebec’s 10 largest engineering firms have been cited for illegal donations to the provincial Liberals and PQ.

Alex Norris, a former Gazette investigative reporter and now a Montreal city councillor with Projet Montréal—the only grass-roots political party among the city’s three formations—blames the city’s political leadership for willful blindness. They are beholden to the suppliers and contractors who work for the city and largely responsible for funding their election campaigns, he argues.

How about the civil service? Could it be that the advent of a professional and non-partisan provincial civil service in the 1960s lacked an ethical component at the municipal level? Is corruption a Quebec thing? Blame it on the Mafia?

Hardly. In September 2004, veteran St. Laurent city councilor Irving Grundman pleaded guilty, along with councilor René Dussault, to municipal corruption charges after being caught in a sting in relation to land rezoning.

Grundman was sentenced to 23 months of community service and fined $50,000. In the transaction recorded by police videotape, Grundman, who claims he was taking kickbacks for his political party, not himself, says to Dussault: “I’ve done this for quite a few years, OK, and so far so good.”

Where were the whistle blowers?

According to commission investigator Guy Desrosiers, as far back as 1997 city hall authorities were told of problems in the public-works department and ways to correct them. Nothing was done and the rot spread.

Not waiting for an ethical revolution, the PQ government has stepped in to stop what cabinet minister Jean-François Lisée calls “scoundrels, low-lifes and criminals” from doing business with the city. Firms contracted to carry out road and sewer projects costing $100,000 or more will have to be accredited with the Autorité des marchés financiers, a monitoring agency.

The time has come for political leaders in Quebec to face up to this apparent moral and ethical deficit among some lawmakers and too many public servants.

If the current crop cannot provide moral leadership and ensure honest government, they deserve to be turfed out.

This analysis was first published in the summer/fall edition of Inroads, the Canadian Journal of Opinion. 

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