The blast from the car bomb “fell like thunder on the house,” shattering the engineering executive’s company car, cratering his driveway and scattering debris around his sleeping suburban neigbourhood.
For Gilles Théberge, the message delivered by the sticks of dynamite stuck underneath his dark grey Buick was not immediately clear in the wee hours of June 15, 2000. At first, he thought he and his construction company, Sintra, had been too aggressive in organizing a system of collusion that made millions for a handful of asphalt companies, but excluded others. Later he would conclude “Italian” construction bosses were letting him know his company was not wanted in Montreal.
In a single day of testimony Thursday, Quebec’s Charbonneau inquiry touched on the massive dimensions of the ring of corruption that dominated construction in the entire region surrounding Montreal, along with the violence that kept players in line.
To start the day, a witness testified how former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt presided over a collusion and bribery ring like a company CEO, designating how funds were collected and spent and even holding an annual meeting where he took stock of the haul.
Companies were expected to kick back 2 per cent on every contract, and now-retired engineer Marc Gendron was in charge of collecting for a decade starting in 1996, he testified.
For the first time at the inquiry, a witness, Mr. Gendron, described Mr. Vaillancourt skimming his own share. Mr. Gendron said he handed wads of $8,000 to $10,000 to Mr. Vaillancourt on several occasions. But nearly half of the estimated $1.5-million collected under Mr. Gendron’s watch ended up in the hands of Mr. Vaillancourt’s brother, Guy Vaillancourt, the witness said.
Those amounts were pocket change, however, compared to the game Mr. Théberge ran in the asphalt business in Laval, Montreal and most of the bedroom communities surrounding them.
Sintra and a handful of other companies sold nearly all of the paving in Montreal and the surrounding area. Each year they would meet at a hotel to set a price and divvy up business.
They inflated the price from $30 to $40 a ton for public contracts in one typical period, Mr. Théberge said. The combination of fixed asphalt prices and collusion on bidding boosted profit margins from the 4- to 8-per-cent range to 30 per cent, he said.
But the system created rivalries, as the smoking hulk of Mr. Théberge’s automobile showed. Mr. Théberge said he called his boss, Daniel Ducroix, before the police even arrived on the scene.
“I told him it was predictable that this would happen, that we had gone too far,” Mr. Théberge said.
But as the sun rose later that morning, he recalled a conversation the previous night at the grand opening of a restaurant belonging to construction magnate Tony Accurso where fellow boss Joe Borsellino, of Garnier, had inquired if he intended to bid on a major project in Montreal’s St. Laurent district.
Mr. Théberge called Mr. Accurso, who said he had no idea who blew up his car. Some time later, another associate would tell Mr. Théberge his car had been blown up because “he was hard on the Italians.”
The bomb wasn’t the first incident targeting Mr. Théberge. He received harassing phone calls, and some weeks before the explosion one of his neighbours had most of his windows broken in an attack Mr. Théberge suspected was intended for him. A while after the bombing, another construction boss, Nicolo Milioto – known as “Mr. Sidewalk” for allegedly threatening to bury troublemakers under them – told Mr. Théberge that he believed the incidents were all messages to stay out of Montreal. Mr. Milioto denied having anything to do with the harassment, Mr. Théberge said.
While Mr. Théberge turned quickly to Mr. Accurso for help to find out who bombed his car in 2000, the construction magnate was also central to the most memorable moment of Mr. Gendron’s Laval kickback-collection career that same year.
Mr. Accurso summoned him to a meeting, where he handed him a briefcase with $200,000. “I was taking a plane to Miami the next morning, I didn’t know what to do with it. I was nervous,” Mr. Gendron said. He delivered the money to a notary who was an ally of the mayor.
Mr. Gendron said he too kicked back 2 per cent from the contracts his engineering firm received in Laval. He said he also made political donations at the provincial and federal level to ensure his company would receive government business. But he said those donations were less directly linked as a return for contracts.
“It was more subtle than that,” he said. “But you did it to stay active, to stay visible. If you didn’t participate, you would easily be eliminated from contention.”