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Former mayor says police chief nixed demand to investigate extortion
MONTREAL--Former Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay told the Charbonneau Commission Thursday that he repeatedly pleaded with police chief Yvan Delorme to investigate an alleged $1 million extortion demand made by his finance director Bernard Trepanier, but that the police chief refused to act.
Tremblay told the commission that Trepanier had presented himself as a representative of the mayor when he asked for $1 million from the Smart Centers developer to approve a commercial development in the St. Michel quarry.
Tremblay said that he later personally contacted the Smart Center official to tell him that he would not be required to hand over $1 million and that his proposed project was acceptable as is.
Tremblay said that he then told executive committee president Frank Zampino the story and Trepanier was swiftly dismissed.
“The trust was already broken,” said Tremblay.
Tremblay said that Zampino then asked him if there was a police investigation underway and Tremblay told him that there was not, to his knowledge, any such investigation taking place.
Tremblay did not tell Trepanier why he was being fired because it would have exposed his source.
“I didn’t tell him, so there would be no threats, intimidation or consequences to someone who trusted in me,” said Tremblay.
Two days later Tremblay told police chief Delorme about the alleged extortion.
Delorme said that since no crime was committed, there could be no investigation, according to Tremblay’s testimony.
Tremblay said he persisted but Delorme did not relent.
Delorme retired in 2010, sooner than scheduled, as his contract had already been renewed until 2013.
Trepanier was fired in 2006 but remained at the centre of party activities.
Tremblay explained that he could do nothing to prevent Trepanier from attending public functions.
No three per cent to Union Montreal
Tremblay also denied reports that his Union Montreal party gained from a three percent kickback tax collected from engineering firms, as described by several others.
“There was never a three percent given to Union Montreal,” said Tremblay. “It’s impossible, impossible.”
Tremblay said that the party did not need the money and that its official agent Marc Deschamps always filed all the required reports in an honest manner.
“All this talk about three percent, well it never came to Union Montreal. Is it possible that the money went into the pockets of certain individuals? We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars. Where did it go? We didn’t need that to win elections. So where did it go? If there are dishonest people who had a method of collecting money and used Union Montreal to do it, ‘as an official agent of the mayor,’ in my name, to go collect money, well I never saw that money and Union Montreal never saw it,” insisted Tremblay.
Tremblay conceded that he did not personally oversee the books but expressed trust in Deschamps as a man of integrity.
“I never turned a blind eye and I’m not a naïve person,” he said.
Commission lawyer Sonia LeBel asked Tremblay if he felt personally responsible for the issues that hit the city under his watch.
“I am responsible and I assume full responsibility. I was surrounded by certain people who betrayed my trust, so I assume responsibility. I take blame for the choices I made. I don’t blame anybody, I made those choices,” he said.
Tremblay unimpressed with former staffers
The former mayor also expressed anger at employees he accused of betraying his trust.
His disdain was directed at senior officials Frank Zampino and Robert Abdallah, who he fired in 2006 when he heard of improper ties with the business community.
He said he dismissed Abdallah, his city manager, after hearing about lunches in an Italian restaurant with now-controversial construction magnate Tony Accurso.
After leaving the city, Abdallah went on to work in the construction industry and, the next year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office pushed for him to become head of the Port of Montreal.
Abdallah did not get the job and Harper has since said the reason his government put forward Abdallah's name was that the City of Montreal wanted him there.
But, on Thursday, Tremblay testified that he regretted hiring the man in the first place.
"The confidence is no longer there. It's broken," the ex-mayor testified. "If I had been given this information (about Accurso ties) when Robert Abdallah was named, it's certain I would not have named him."
He said the firing took two minutes. He summoned Abdallah for a meeting and told him, "Your mandate is over."
He also said he would never have placed Zampino as the No. 2 politician in the city had he known about his dealings with Accurso, such as a Las Vegas trip. Accurso now faces criminal charges and the inquiry has heard allegations that he has ties to the Mafia.
Tremblay said that, even without that alleged criminal element, it would have been a firing offense for senior city officials to have such personal ties with a major contractor who competed for municipal work.
Tremblay himself resigned as mayor last November under a cloud of scandal brought on in part by inquiry testimony that he was aware of alleged illegal financing and did nothing.
As his testimony was barely getting underway Thursday, Tremblay said he wanted to raise a point he was eager to make: that his Union Montreal party had never taken a three per cent cut on construction contracts awarded by the city.
"It's impossible," Tremblay said, in a reference to the huge sums allegedly involved in the scam described in previous testimony.
"What would we have done with that money?"
That prompted the inquiry chair to interject with a point of her own.
Justice France Charbonneau noted that, a mere moment earlier, the ex-mayor had just said he wasn't involved in party financing. If he wasn't involved, then how would he know if his party was respecting the financial rules?
"You're saying in the same breath there was no three per cent," the judge asked.
The inquiry has heard that a construction cartel worked to inflate the price of public projects and split the extra cash with the Mafia, corrupt bureaucrats, and Tremblay's party through a three per cent kickback.
Tremblay was asked to explain what he based his confidence on and he replied that he simply had faith in his party's official agent.
Soon thereafter, an inquiry lawyer raised the one central question of Tremblay's turn on the witness stand: Are you naive?
The old politician fired back with a forceful reply.
"I am not naive. I am not a naive person," Tremblay said.
"I am a person who trusts."
He made sure to mention that he was not only unaware of wrongdoing, but that he also did not intentionally keep himself in the dark.
That prompted another intervention from the judge: "If you're not naive," said Charbonneau, "and you don't do wilful blindness, how did you not see this?"
To which Tremplay replied: "See what? See what nobody else saw?"
While he proclaimed his ignorance, Tremblay did say that early in his first mandate, a decade ago, he intervened to sideline an elected official who had improper dealings with a construction company.
When he took the stand at the Charbonneau Commission on Thursday morning, Tremblay started to outline his past. He said that at the age of 15 he knew he wanted to get into politics.
Tremblay served as a cabinet minister under the Liberals' Robert Bourassa in the late 1980s and the 1990s before eventually becoming mayor in the early 2000s.
When he resigned last November, Tremblay said he had hoped to testify at the Charbonneau inquiry while still in office so he could defend himself. Inquiry officials were not prepared to have him take the stand at the time.
His resignation came after a former aide alleged at the inquiry that Tremblay was aware of illegal financing within his party. That aide's testimony has since come under scrutiny, as he recently admitted to having made up some details from another anecdote he shared.
But the damage to Tremblay was done. He had spent years vehemently denying any knowledge of wrongdoing, and the allegations against him were politically devastating.
Tremblay became the inquiry's highest-ranking political casualty from testimony that has seen engineering executives and others forced to leave their posts.