Charbonneau. Many Canadians have never heard the name – but the name of the Quebec Superior Court Justice, France Charbonneau, is about to become famous within Quebec and indeed, nation-wide. She first left her mark on the judicial system when she prosecuted (and won) the case against former Hells Angels strongman Maurice Boucher; during that time, she only took five days off for personal relaxation in 18 months – now, that dedication might be necessary again.
She has been tasked by none other than the (now former) Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, to investigate allegations of corruption within the City of Montreal’s bureaucracy. For a previous op-ed I wrote on corruption, you can find further reading here. The systematic collusion of individuals at all levels in the Montreal city administration led to bribes, bid-rigging, payoffs to Mafia bosses, and illicit political financing according to investigators. Shockingly, one example of such manipulation occurred when a cartel of firms chose a construction company, who would call the city engineers to tell them what price they wanted.
One of the initial targets of the investigation dubbed the “Charbonneau Commission”, a retired city engineer by the name of Gilles Surprenant, took to the stand and said that he had never reported the corruption he witnessed because he did not think it was in his job description. This comes after it emerged that he has received more than $700,000 in kickbacks. According to him, the corruption ran deep, with everyone from his immediate bosses down to low-level assistants aware of the inflation of prices on city contracts for over nine years. The cost of contracts increased by an average of 30-35% since the early 1990s when Surprenant originally started receiving kickbacks. In his mind, returning $123,000 and losing more than $250,000 in casinos is enough to have a clear conscience – “I’m not a villain. I am a civil servant who has been corrupted,” Surprenant said. In one case, a contractor was paid $175,000 for excavating ground that wasn’t there. He was also given hockey tickets, wine, fancy holiday dinners and vacations – Gilles even recalls golfing twice with Vito Rizzuto, the notorious Mafia boss who was recently released from prison after time served for murder and other charges.
Montreal’s recently resigned Mayor, Gerald Tremblay, has also been implicated. According to Lino Zambito – a former construction boss who is the inquiry’s star witness – 3% of all contracts awarded by the City of Montreal went to the political party of Mayor Tremblay, Union Montreal. Lino was told about the practice by Nicolo Milioto, a “business associate” of none other than Vito Rizzuto, the head of the Sicilian Mafia in Canada. Mr. Zambito paid another percentage of work’s overall value to a city official – nicknamed the 1% GST – an ironic twist in that it stands for the Gilles Surprenant Tax; the final 2.5% was in turn paid out to the Mafia. The Mayor has since resigned after being implicated in the inquest and leading the city for 23 years, despite denying accusations that he knew of the illegitimate gains arriving to his party’s coffers. Martin Dumont – a political staffer for the Mayor between 2004 and 2006 – testified that Tremblay distanced himself from the dirty money but that he also likely knew it was paying the bills. Other allegations concerning the ballooning of the ‘official’ elections budget (from $46,000 to nearly $90,000), or of construction bosses paying off the party financing chair Bernard Trepanier during fundraisers also emerged.
The latest name being brought up in connection with the scandal is that of Luc Leclerc, a retired City of Montreal engineer, who allegedly received hockey tickets, golf games, Christmas baskets, Caribbean vacations and over $500,000 in kickbacks over a span of 15 years. Leclerc says he simply wanted to fit in with his new colleagues, and mentions that the brown envelopes and lavish gifts were a part of the “culture”. Leclerc recalls how he helped justify false extras (imaginary costs for things not included in the original bid, totaling millions of dollars in exchange for 25% of the extra amount billed) and negotiated with boroughs for better work space or working hours. If the budget called for ten days of work and the contractor finished in eight, they would pocket the difference. The corporations mentioned include Zambito’s Infrabec, Catania, Mivela (owned by Milioto, Rizzuto’s middleman) and Garnier. According to Leclerc, his boss Gilles Vezina would also accept sports tickets, and would appear at corporate barbecues. In another twist, received tens of thousands of dollars of free work while fixing up his house, and moved in next to another contractor, Paolo Catania.
Sadly, what the witnesses say cannot hurt them since they have immunity from criminal prosecution, and thus their testimony can only implicate others. Lawyers disagree whether these witnesses may still be tried in civil courts (for example, for the City to try and recover stolen monies), but there is currently no consensus. And so, without concern for the risk of perjury, people can spill the details of Quebec’s biggest ever corruption case, likely without any personal repercussions.
It is troubling that in the new millennium, and in one of the most developed countries in the world, that such ethically and morally corrupt actions occurred with the full knowledge of elected officials and senior civil servants, amongst others. What this means for the City of Montreal and the province of Quebec, as well as for other mid-level employees in major cities around the world, remains to be seen. At the very least however, this inquest should at least attest to the fact that checks and balances need to be supervised meticulously, and that contracts which our governments sign at all levels need to be independently assessed. A paper tiger such as an ethics code might be too little, too late, and not affect real change. For the sake of our own respect and trust in our public officials and their employees, as well as the hard-earned tax dollars that were recklessly spent, I hope this doesn’t happen again.