Every Laval councillor broke the law: Charbonneau Inquiry
Published Thursday, May 30, 2013 10:30AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, May 31, 2013 10:09AM EDT
Lawyer Jean Bertrand, one of the most powerful men in Laval municipal politics, says both he and former mayor Gilles Vaillancourt were standup, forthright, honest men who did not consider illegal donations to their party to be something that was wrong.
Bertrand, who was the legal adviser and organizer for the Parti PRO des Lavallois, said he did not believe the stories about kickbacks and corruption that had been revealed at the inquiry.
"I never asked for cash from Mr. Vaillancourt. I never gave him cash," testified Bertrand at the Charbonneau Inquiry.
He then proceeded to detail exactly how he broke provincial laws about party fundraising by giving cash to mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, along with just about every municipal councillor in Laval.
Bertrand said that every autumn he visited party councillors and asked them and their families to make donations to the political party, an expense that he would reimburse on the spot with cash.
"I told them it was illegal and was hoping they'd say no," testified Bertrand, pointing out that in 1997 and 2001 councillor Robert Plante was one of the few to refuse. Later on only France Dubreuil and Martine Beaugrand refused.
"New councillors were well aware of how it worked. If they didn't know I would explain it to them."
Bertrand said that engineering firms were tapped for donations, up to $150,000 in 2009 alone, and that he would filter donations through strawmen and figureheads.
"I didn't like anonymous donations," said Bertrand.
He said raising more money than was allowed was a common practice, and that Alexandre Duplessis, the current mayor of Laval, commonly made donations to others that were reimbursed.
"I learned to work elections with the Parti Quebecois and I'm a separatist," said Bertrand. "But we didn't call it that in those days. And the opposition did it too."
Bertrand also explained how the Parti PRO des Lavallois had one of the largest memberships of any political party in the country. At its peak it had 28,000 members -- or one of every ten people in Laval.
Despite this apparent passion for politics in Quebec's third-largest city, only 35 percent of people voted in elections.
Bertrand said that he once pleaded with Mayor Vaillancourt to discontinue the system but the mayor appeared irritated and changed the subject.
One year when Bertrand did not make the payments, Vaillancourt blamed him for hurting the party.
Bertrand explained to Vaillancourt that the party did not need the money and yet Vaillancourt urged him to recommence, which he did halfheartedly in 2006.
In non-election years, the party managed to collect between $40,000 to $60,000 in cash from the engineers, according to Bertrand.
Vaillancourt could also haul in about $140,000 after expenses from his annual cocktail party, which cost $250 per ticket.
The party also received funding of about $500,000 to $590,000 to cover expenses such as the salaries of researchers and secretaries.
Bertrand, who was one of 37 people arrested by the UPAC in May 9, said that he never asked the mayor for cash, whom he saw rarely.
He stressed that he worked for the councillors, not the mayor and only went to lunch with Vaillancourt three times in 28 years, but he did once visit Vaillancourt’s boat while the mayor was docked in Ste. Anne de Bellevue and entertaining Parti Quebecois leader Bernard Landry.
Bertrand said that the PRO Laval party was founded in 1980 but it took 30 years until the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec conducted its first audit.
Contractor denies collusion and corruption
Earlier in the day another man recently arrested and charged with fraud said that city manager Claude Deguise ran the collusion system in Laval until his retirement.
Ronnie Mergle said he was not aware of any collusion among engineering firms on their own behalf, but pointed the finger squarely at Deguise, saying the manager ordered companies to pay kickbacks, and saying that Deguise and Deguise alone decided who would win contracts.
Mergl said that this "harmonization" guaranteed profit margins of 18 percent and also ensured that his firm, Nepcon, won $99 million in contracts from Laval between 1996 until 2012.
The entrepreneur said he also had close ties to noted Union Montreal fundraiser Bernard Trepanier, paying him a $75,000 annual retainer -- but that Trepanier failed to get Nepcon any public works contracts in Montreal.
Everything that Mergl and Bertrand said during the inquiry cannot be used against them in a criminal court.