It wasn’t city engineer Gilles Surprenant who created the pervasive corruption in the awarding of water and sewer contracts in Montreal, and parts beyond. But it couldn’t have happened without him, and people like him. Most corrupt or evil systems depend on the silent acquiescence of the majority.
We can only hope that young people are not following the news from Quebec’s Charbonneau Commission investigating corruption in construction and government. The message from Mr. Surprenant was cynical and destructive: Doing the right thing was simply impossible. It does not even appear to have been contemplated.
He was famous as “Mr. TPS” – Taxe pour Surprenant. (Such was his notoriety that even he was aware of his nickname.) The TPS in some Montreal construction projects was one per cent of the overall cost; he was the engineering equivalent of the Goods and Services Tax. But when he testified, it was as if a clerk had stepped, blinking, out of Kafka or Gogol or a Kurosawa movie – the archetypal little man, powerless and not deserving, at least in his own mind, of public opprobrium.
Now retired, he painted himself as a victim. He didn’t go looking for the corruption, he said, blaming contractors for what happened. “At the beginning, a corrupt official, in my case anyway, does not exist. A functionary becomes corrupted.” He wanted “a normal career, like all engineers.” He didn’t even know what to do with the money, and wound up, as he put it, giving it back by losing more than $250,000 in a casino. In 91 contracts he was involved in between 2000 and 2008, he said he received payments of $600,000 – oops, he made an adding error. It was $700,000-plus. (The “plus” included a trip to the Dominican Republic with an important mobster.) And the result was that city infrastructure cost 35 per cent more than in, say, Toronto.
Why didn’t he call the police? he was asked.
“I spoke openly about it to my superiors. I did not think it was my role, as a simple bureaucrat, to call the police.”
Not his role as a simple bureaucrat to call the police. Commissioner France Charbonneau has a gargantuan job ahead as she tries to cure the rot infecting Montreal and elsewhere. When she does, she shouldn’t let the simple bureaucrats off the hook.