Mayor Michael Applebaum insists he's not under investigation despite an extraordinary police raid that breached the confines of his office and shook public confidence that Montreal had put the worst of its corruption woes behind it.
"I want to make it clear. I was not targeted by this investigation," Mr. Applebaum told reporters at city hall Wednesday.
His remarks offered a measure of reassurance to Montrealers treated to the stunning sight of squads of anti-corruption police storming a historic edifice that has enjoyed its share of intrigue over the years, but not in memory the presence of investigators armed with search warrants.
The Tuesday raids at city hall along with six borough offices in Montreal has not only further tarnished the city's image but made it difficult to try to give citizens the impression that city hall has taken out the garbage, so to speak, and cleaned house.
In fact, however, the operation by 125 officers of Quebec's anti-corruption squad, known by its acronym UPAC, is believed to be related to illegal campaign financing during the 2000s, and to the then-ruling Union Montréal party of Gérald Tremblay. Mr. Tremblay resigned as mayor under the weight of corruption allegations last fall; Mr. Applebaum was a Union Montréal borough mayor and later Mr. Tremblay's right-hand man until he quit to sit as an independent in November.
Mr. Applebaum said that, although police did enter his office on Tuesday afternoon, they did not search his computer or walk away with files or documents. Investigators asked to meet him "as a courtesy" and said he was not required to answer questions.
"I said, 'I'm here to co-operate,' " Mr. Applebaum told reporters. Of the probe, he said: "It's a stain on the city of Montreal but at the same time, this is work that has to be done and I'm glad that UPAC is doing [it]." He added that he could not disclose the details of the investigation.
The TVA network reported Wednesday that UPAC was investigating illegal election spending by Union Montréal dating to 2001, in which the party allegedly used public funds to pay for a $100,000 contract with a public relations firm. That firm, now known as Octane Stratégies, issued a statement saying it was co-operating with police. Other reports said police were probing illegal election spending from 2005 to 2009.
The police operation sparked reaction from the Quebec government, which appeared on edge, fearing that public confidence in city hall will continue to erode.
When public confidence eroded around Mr. Tremblay, Premier Pauline Marois "encouraged" him to think long and hard about his political future. A few days later, the mayor resigned. The Quebec government has not yet reached the point where it believes Mr. Applebaum faces a similar, irreparable political situation. The province continues to support the interim mayor for now, but there was no telling what the police raids may uncover.
"For now, everything is okay. Let justice take its course and let us respect the presumption of innocence," said the minister responsible for Montreal, Jean-François Lisée. He said Quebec "will continue working with him."
With a little more than eight months to go before the next municipal election, the Parti Québécois government was hopeful that Mr. Applebaum could ride the political storm until then. Ms. Marois, who blamed the former Liberal government for failing to act sooner on allegations of corruption in Montreal, said she hoped "that things are not as serious as they appear."
Public Security Minister Stéphane Bergeron insisted that he had no inside knowledge of the police investigation and urged Montrealers not to lose faith in their institutions. "To say that they should have confidence in individuals, I don't know. But they must have confidence in their institutions."