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Former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt scrums with reporters outside a courtroom in Laval, Que. on Thursday May 9, 2013. The ex-mayor who once seemed unbeatable now faces one of the Criminal Code's most serious charges: directing a criminal organization. (Andy Blatchford/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt scrums with reporters outside a courtroom in Laval, Que. on Thursday May 9, 2013. The ex-mayor who once seemed unbeatable now faces one of the Criminal Code's most serious charges: directing a criminal organization. (Andy Blatchford/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Patrick Lagacé

Laval mayor’s arrest marks a climate change in Quebec Add to ...

My newspaper’s headline today is shocking : Vaillancourt accusé de gangstérisme . The mayor of Laval, Gilles Vaillancourt, faces charges of gangsterism for allegedly running Québec’s third largest city as if it were his own personal fiefdom.

Mr. Vaillancourt was arrested at his luxurious Laval apartment at 6 a.m. ET on Thursday. Even though a police operation in Laval was long expected (Quebec’s anticorruption squad, UPAC, had raided municipal offices, business and private residences in the last months, as part of a criminal investigation), the gangsterism charges came as a surprise.

But that’s the only thing out of Laval that should come as a surprise. Laval has always been code for elected officials on the take, involving shady land deals and kickbacks. Two decades ago, La Presse ran investigative exposés into how the fast-developing island, Montréal’s immediate northern suburb, was home to troubling stories involving local politicians and businessmen.

It is known that there was at least one attempt by the Sûreté du Québec to investigate allegations of wrongdoings in Laval. Nothing came out of it. But one could not be blamed for suspecting that Mr. Vaillancourt was secretly nervous. Why else would the City of Laval hire a contractor to sweep City Hall every week in search of listening devices? It did exactly that for four years, at a total cost of $145,000.

From time to time, land-swap stories stories about Laval would pop up in the media, to be met by a what can only be described as popular apathy from the good people of Laval. Despite the rumours, despite the media stories, Mr. Vaillancourt’s Parti du Ralliement Officiel (PRO) ruled Laval without many rivals. In 2008, the PRO swept every council seat.

Then something happened in Quebec. Around 2009, investigative journalists – mainly from Radio-Canada, Le Devoir, The Gazette and La Presse – started excavating scandalous stories about cronyism and kickbacks in all sorts of public-works contracts in and around Montreal. Originally, Laval was not among these stories that put municipal officials and private contractors in the same boat (sometimes literally on the same boat).

Public anger started to build as investigative reporters revealed scandal after scandal. Calls for a public inquiry into these shady deals grew louder and louder as months flew by, and Jean Charest’s government looked increasingly suspicious as it refused to heed these calls. Municipal and provincial politicians were among the chorus asking for a public inquiry. Among the few holdouts who dared voice their disagreement was Mr. Vaillancourt. (In November 2011, under intense pressure, then-premier finally announced that Judge France Charbonneau would lead this public inquiry.)

People became less and less afraid to talk to reporters. Some even spoke on the record. Former PQ minister and Bloc Québécois MP Serge Ménard made a startling revelation to Radio-Canada in November 2010: Mr. Vaillancourt, the former MP said, offered him an envelope containing $10,000 cash in 1993, when he first ran as a MNA in Laval (he declined).

Radio-Canada also revealed, in the same piece, that Mr. Vaillancourt had offered Vincent Auclair, a young Liberal MNA for a Laval riding, an envelope containing thousands of dollars in cash.

Mr. Vaillancourt flatly denied the accusations. For a year, he threatened to sue his accusers. He never did.

The police raid Thursday in Laval incorporates all of the elements that have become fixtures in this province-wide scandal of public officials and private contractors: A complacent or downright on-the-take City Hall. A scheme of fixed kickbacks paid to City Hall (2 per cent, it is alleged, in Laval). Conniving city managers and private contractors rigging public contracts. And, as the cherry on this stinking sundae, Antonio Accurso.

Mr. Accurso, known as Tony, was once Quebec’s most prolific public-works contractor. His crews built everything from bridges and roads to public buildings. With great talent, according to those who know about these things. But Mr. Accurso also had a luxurious yacht christened The Touch – you could lease it for $65,000 a week – on which he invited high and low-level politicians and public-service workers for cruises in the Caribbean.

This boat came to symbolize the collusion scandals that plagued this province. It was, Frank Zampino’s Waterloo, as the stay on the yacht by Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay’s confidence man ignited a chain reaction that ended with his arrest in another criminal investigation.

Mr. Accurso was arrested in the Laval raid. It is the third time he has been arrested in connection with a criminal investigation – not to mention his ongoing troubles with Revenue Canada and Revenue Québec.

One should not be surprised by the arrests in Laval. One should be surprised as to why, given that so much was known about how things really worked in this city, the Sûreté du Québec has been unable to mount a successful criminal investigation in Laval during the past two decades.

But then again, the SQ, prior to the aforementioned climate change in Quebec, had never seriously bit into corruption stories involving municipal or provincial politicians. I am amongst those who think that this not a coincidence.

Patrick Lagacé is a columnist and blogger for Montreal’s La Presse newspaper

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