Just two days after vowing he would not hide from the corruption scandal that has swamped his city and brought an emergency ethics crackdown from the province, the mayor of Montreal has left on a surprise vacation.
Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay announced Thursday that "events" have driven him to take a few days' rest, echoing a similar move last month by the mayor of Laval, who took sick leave as corruption investigators raided his home.
Mr. Tremblay drove away from his home with his wife Thursday, after the Charbonneau Commission into corruption had enraged the province with evidence that he knew his party was illegally spending tens of thousands in ill-gotten cash donations.
The sudden departure came at the same moment the new Parti Québécois government rushed into the legislature Bill 1, a law that will require the province's 24,000 contractors to obtain a seal of integrity from the provincial securities regulator to bid on any contract of more than $25,000.
Other legislation will be tabled in the coming days dealing with the funding of political parties and changes to how construction jobs are distributed among the province's unionized labour force.
"We must ensure that, in Quebec, it is profitable to be honest," said PQ Treasury Board President Stéphane Bédard. The inquiry has "unfortunately fuelled the disappointment and the sense of helplessness many of us have….Clear rigorous measures are needed to halt collusion and corruption."
But new rules and a missing mayor weren't the only problems facing Canada's second-biggest city. Leaders left behind admitted they are confronting a growing revolt from sickened Montrealers who were hit with a tax hike on the same day Mr. Tremblay was directly implicated for the first time in the collusion, bribery and political financing scandal.
In a stunning turnaround, the second-most powerful politician at city hall stepped forward in the mayor's absence to withdraw the budget he and Mr. Tremblay had unveiled just two days earlier.
"I understand that taxpayers are angry after what they've seen at the Charbonneau Commission," Michael Applebaum, the city councillor who chairs the mayor's executive committee, told reporters at City Hall. "I've asked the director of finance to see if there's a way to present the budget so it will be better accepted by the population."
The mayor presented the city's budget Tuesday, denied wrongdoing and lashed out angrily at reporters who pressed him on whether he would resign. "I'm not going to hide, I'm present, I'm not sick, I will continue to manage the city," he said.
Mr. Applebaum would not comment on the future of the mayor, as calls for Mr. Tremblay's resignation echoed from city hall to the National Assembly in Quebec City, where opposition parties reassured the minority government they would help rush through the new contracting law by Christmas.
Political financing is at the heart of allegations against Mr. Tremblay, who was accused by former Union Montréal organizer Martin Dumont of knowing his party was illegally spending $90,000 cash on a by-election campaign. Mr. Dumont said the party was awash in illegal cash donations.
Inside the Charbonneau inquiry, a witness confirmed petty corruption "went on for generations" at the city of Montreal, long before an era of cash bribes and fixed contracts in the 2000s wasted hundreds of millions in tax dollars.
Luc Leclerc, a retired city engineer, said the ink wasn't dry on his 1990 transfer to the city from a regional transportation authority when he was invited to his first golf tournament – where staff, from secretaries to supervisors, played for free and took home gifts of wine and other prizes from construction companies. The city workers paid for nothing, he said.
During the 1990 Christmas season, city workers picked presents from the back of loaded pickup trucks sent by construction companies, he said.
Free golf, expensive meals and NHL hockey tickets flowed freely long before 2000, when construction bosses started paying cash bribes in return for inflated contracts. "It went on for generations," said Mr. Leclerc, who admitted to taking $500,000 in cash bribes. (Another engineer earlier admitted to taking at least $700,000.)
"I hadn't even arrived yet and I was invited to my first golf tournament. I was taken aback," Mr. Leclerc said. "But when I saw I could get away with it, I wasn't very resistant."
And he quickly got used to it. Mr. Leclerc quickly became an expert in helping construction bosses push through "extra" claims on city construction contracts.
Mr. Leclerc said a code imposed by the city in 2009 brought the graft to an end. "The code of conduct gave you a conscience?" asked Sonia LeBel, the commission counsel.
"The party was over," Mr. Leclerc replied.
NEW YORK CONNECTION
Quebec New York's anti-corruption watchdog was the model the Charest government used in setting up a permanent investigative unit to tackle widespread collusion and fraud in Quebec's construction industry.
Now, the Parti Québécois is following New York's lead again in drafting legislation to eradicate collusion and corruption in the awarding of public contracts.
Quebec proposes to enforce stiff regulatory measures similar to those in New York in order to ensure that companies followed proper ethics before bidding on public contracts.
In New York, companies are required each year to complete an elaborate questionnaire that is used to determine their eligibility to bid on municipal contracts. Quebec will be taking that system one step further by making sure companies that register to bid on public contracts undergo an extensive audit to validate their ethics and integrity.
Even the slightest suspicion that a company may have been involved in questionable deals or was suspected of having ties with organized crime would be enough to refuse it authorization to bid on public contracts.
Quebec also examined other jurisdictions before coming up with its own model. In Ont-ario, for example, the directors, employees and shareholders of companies bidding on public contracts undergo mandatory security checks. In Ottawa, security checks are also made of companies who register to bid on federal contracts.
- Rhéal Séguin