The new mayor of Montreal was questioned by corruption investigators and hastily denied he is under investigation hours after he launched a new anti-corruption squad to probe city business.
Michael Applebaum, who has promised a new era of transparency for the city, disclosed the Friday afternoon meeting with investigators from the Charbonneau corruption inquiry. But the mayor wouldn't say what they talked to him about for an hour and forty minutes, saying some city business must remain confidential.
As the meeting was taking place, news reports quickly emerged saying investigators from the Charbonneau corruption inquiry were quizzing Mr. Applebaum about a real estate deal and ties to the mafia, allegations he vehemently denied when he met reporters at City Hall in the evening.
"I am not under investigation, Mr. Applebaum said. "I will collaborate with the Charbonneau commission in order to make clear what has happened in the past in the city of Montreal. The investigation is not about me."
Le Devoir reported Friday afternoon that investigators are probing questionable transactions and zoning changes involving a real estate development in a Montreal borough where Mr. Appelbaum served as mayor from 2002 to 2012. "It's false," he said.
La Presse reported that investigators also want to know more about potential links to a known mobster. Mr. Applebaum said he is not aware he has ever met with gangsters. "I meet citizens … I meet businessmen. But when we learn there are doubts about anyone, we take care," Mr. Applebaum said.
Opposition members in Montreal were withholding judgment as they watched the day's developments. Richard Bergeron, the leader of one of two city opposition parties, said he has no doubts about Mr. Applebaum's integrity and praised him for establishing the new fraud squad. "He still has all of my confidence," he told reporters.
But the confusion cast a shadow over the mayor's announcement earlier in the day that he and police chief Marc Parent have established a 20-person squad to dig into all city dealings and root out corruption.
The new unit will have a budget of $3-million and a mandate to examine any of the city's business, Mr. Applebaum said.
Everything from major road construction to the contract for new pants for firefighters could fall under scrutiny, the mayor said. "They will have the mandate to visit any construction site, any city building, and examine any contract," said Mr. Applebaum. "They will be allowed to look everywhere. … No one is untouchable."
Mr. Applebaum stepped into the mayor's office late last year after Gérald Tremblay resigned amid evidence corruption was rampant under his 10-year watch.
The Charbonneau inquiry, which is on a Christmas break until January 21, spent the fall uncovering city officials who skimmed off construction contracts and political officials who were hauling in kickbacks.
Other officials were arrested and charged with fraud, including the former second-in-command at city hall, Frank Zampino.
"All the profiteers and schemers who want to swindle taxpayers are now warned there is a new level of protection," said Mr. Applebaum.
The Charbonneau commission heard how during the early 2000s low-level bureaucrats raked in hundreds of thousands in bribes and kickbacks and had little fear of auditors or Montreal police, until media reports forced the province to establish an anti-corruption squad in 2009.
A vast system of collusion on hundreds of millions of dollars in construction projects dried up shortly afterward, the commission heard.