Quebec engineering inquiry sifts through Laval city hall corruption
Municipal government likened to a crime syndicate, mayor charged as organized crime boss
MONTREAL — It has been likened to a criminal organization and, now, the inner workings of Laval city hall are about to be exposed at Quebec’s corruption inquiry. The inquiry has shifted its focus to the municipality across the river from Montreal, the third-largest city in Quebec.
Laval’s longtime mayor, Gilles Vaillancourt, was among several dozen people recently arrested and the charges laid against him were surprising: Two involved gangsterism, and one was the charge that he directed a criminal organization, among the most serious counts in the Criminal Code. The inquiry will spend the next several weeks sifting through Laval’s affairs, after focusing mainly on Montreal in recent months.
A first witness already described, on the first day of testimony Wednesday, contract-rigging taking place among engineering firms. Jean Roberge was most recently Laval’s assistant city manager, but he was suspended from his job pending his testimony at the inquiry. Between 2002 and 2007, he was part of a local engineering firm that got involved in the contract-sharing scheme. He was asked how he could be sure.
“Because I participated in it myself,” Roberge replied.
At the time, the lion’s share of the city’s engineering contracts were entrusted to outside firms. Roberge said he was approached by Jean-Marc Melancon — a senior bureaucrat who had been chief of staff to then-mayor Gilles Vaillancourt. He said he told Melancon that he wanted his company, Equation Groupe Conseil, to get more lucrative work from the city and get away from the smaller contracts it had.
Melancon allegedly suggested that he pay a courtesy visit to the mayor. He did, but nothing was discussed about contracts.
He said he took away one conclusion from his encounter with Melancon: “If you’re good to politics, then politics will be good to you.”
He soon got a contract worth about $200,000. After submitting bids, Roberge said he got his first call from Claude Deguise, the city’s chief engineer, telling him he’d won a contract and all he had to do was contact a partner firm and make arrangements. All contracts had two bidders — the minimum required by the city.
After he won two or three contracts, he said, there was “grumbling in the corridors” that it was time to pay up. There was no set amount, but it fell in the 2 to 3 per cent range. He said the initial amount — $10,000 in cash — went through a notary, Jean Gauthier, and was destined for Vaillancourt’s party, which held all the seats on council at the time.
Roberge said the rigging practice continued until about 2010, when increased media scrutiny and new rules helped root out the illicit bidding. His first day of testimony focused on his time as an engineering executive. In 2008, he left his private-sector job to work for Laval. He held a variety of posts before being suspended at the beginning of the month in advance of his testimony.
Roberge is the first in a series of witnesses who over the next several weeks will paint a portrait of corruption in that community, said inquiry counsel Paul Crepeau. He said the witnesses will include elected officials, businessmen, city officials and other professionals.
“The inquiry will detail the system of kickbacks in cash from construction contractors and engineering firms,” Crepeau told the inquiry. “The structure of this organization will appear very different from the one encountered during the hearings for Montreal.”
Crepeau acknowledged that the exercise would take place in the shadow of a massive corruption bust in Laval just last week. But he said it wasn’t the inquiry’s role to prove the guilt of those arrested last week.
Earlier Wednesday, last-minute concerns about the credibility of the person intended to be the first witness forced a change of plans. The inquiry was expecting to hear from Gaetan Turbide, who is currently suspended from his job as Laval city manager. But inquiry officials said they received information from an “`official source” on Wednesday that raised questions about Turbide’s credibility.
“At 9:15 this morning, inquiry counsel learned information that makes them seriously doubt the credibility of the next witness Gaetan Turbide,” lawyer Sonia LeBel said.
It’s unclear why concerns about witness credibility would stop the inquiry now. Such concerns have been a constant throughout the process — where chronic memory gaps, shifting stories and improbable explanations on the witness stand have occasionally elicited expressions of frustration from the judge and counsel.
This week, a former political organizer and engineering executive admitted to lying under oath about whether he owned or rented his summer cottage. A day later, he admitted to having swapped a home with a Hells Angels biker. The admission came after that detail had already appeared in a local newspaper.
Earlier this year, Martin Dumont, whose testimony helped bring down the former mayor of Montreal, also admitted to making up an anecdote. Other witnesses have repeatedly revised basic details about their testimony after being confronted with new facts during questioning.
The examination of Laval comes after the arrest of Vaillancourt and 36 others in massive corruption sweep. Vaillancourt ruled over Laval for some 23 years and earned himself the nickname the “Monarch of Laval.” The ex-mayor has said he will fight to restore his reputation.
© 2013 The Canadian Press