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The Montreal skyline. (Peter Mccabe/Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)
The Montreal skyline. (Peter Mccabe/Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)

Police probes, Mafia allegations in the 'Palermo' of Canada Add to ...

Allegations of corruption have been swirling like effluent through Montreal's body politic in recent weeks, and today Montrealers have reason to wonder just how deep the muck really goes.

In a single day Thursday, Mayor Gérald Tremblay admitted in a report that he feared for his family's safety. An opposition politician, who resigned Sunday over payments from murky backers, said a "Mafia system" controls Montreal city hall.

And the Quebec government, under relentless pressure to call a public probe into questionable ties between the construction industry and municipal officials, announced a beefed-up squad to root out corruption.

Collusion, bid-rigging, brown envelopes at city hall: The claims are enough to remind Montreal of its old reputation, coined almost a century ago, as "the rottenest city on the continent." Or as one columnist put it Thursday, Palermo.

So far no one in Montreal has been charged, and Mr. Tremblay is not under suspicion. But with a municipal election only nine days away, many Montrealers feel they face a Hobson's choice at the polls. Both main parties have now been tainted by allegations of shady dealings.

Mr. Tremblay's administration is the subject of a half-dozen provincial police investigations. Earlier this year his former right-hand man admitted he vacationed while in power on the yacht of a construction entrepreneur whose firm was then part of a winning consortium for a record $356-million water-meter contract.

News reports suggest the mob controls most Montreal road-work contracts, and a select group of 14 companies use coded language to fix bids and inflate prices on public-works projects.

Until this week, some disgruntled voters considered supporting Louise Harel, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister who presented herself as the clean alternative to the mayor. But on Sunday, her running mate, former Board of Trade president Benoît Labonté, resigned after disclosures he accepted clandestine cash for his leadership bid from the same shadowy milieu his party had been criticizing. He then shot back Thursday by dishing further dirt, including charges of widespread fund-raising violations across party lines, and the claim of Mafia controls of city hall.

Mayor Tremblay held an impromptu news conference late last night to condemn Mr. Labonté for spreading rumours and hearsay instead of going to police. "I can't accept that his insinuation that I tolerated an illegal system," he said.

"We've always heard these rumours in the municipal world, any time I was in possession of any facts, I went to the police."

The accusations all have a familiar if distant ring for Montreal, a city with a long and colourful history of corruption. Every few decades a new administration or commission of inquiry comes in to clean up, dating back to 1905 when Justice Henri Taschereau condemned the "infamy" of corrupt police practices.

Yet the latest revelations suggest the corruption issue, like potholes and Mount Royal, never disappears from the city landscape.

"People think that we clean the problem up and it goes away," said Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, a former provincial MNA and author of a book on about the Montreal Mafia. "But you need to sweep every day or else dust accumulates and bacteria grows. We're due for a big cleanup, because we let things rot and deteriorate in a dramatic way."

Jacques Duchesneau had a privileged perch from which to glimpse the shadowy world. He was police chief in Montreal in the 1990s and ran for mayor in 1998. During that campaign, he found himself approached repeatedly by legitimate businessmen who told him they were mysteriously frozen out from city contracts.

"They weren't part of the gang," Mr. Duchesneau concludes. "That's when I started to understand."

Mr. Duchesneau, who headed the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority until last year, believes Montreal is experiencing a new bout of an old affliction. "It's the same story I lived through 11 years ago and that existed in Montreal in the 40s and 50s. It's like a cancer."

Veteran observers say organized crime has been adept at making inroads into legitimate circles in cities worldwide. Antonio Nicaso, a Toronto-based author and specialist on the Mafia, says some mobsters have used construction and other industries as a "cover" to gain access to lucrative public-sector contracts.

"Bricks, real-estate and construction were always the sectors the Mafia used to invest the proceeds of crime," he said. While the mob operates this way in cities around the world, it has found especially "fertile ground" in Montreal, he said.

"In Montreal, the Mafia is well entrenched in society, they don't live on the outside at the margins. The real Mafia dresses in suits and attends meetings in boardrooms," he said.

Montreal's municipal party system also creates strong pressures for fundraising, which has been the focus of extensive charges of improper practices. And the messy 2002 mergers - then partial demergers - of Montreal and its suburbs created something of an administrative monster, adding layers of bureaucracy in newly empowered city boroughs, one professor says.

"We don't really know what happens at city hall. We just see the symbolic figure of the mayor, but don't have any direct contact. It allows shadier things to happen," says Julie-Anne Boudreau, a researcher at the University of Quebec who has compared Montreal and Toronto.

The swamp of scandal allegations has left many Montrealers, only 35 per cent of whom bothered voting in the last election, scratching their heads. With both front-running parties under a cloud, some voters are taking a look at third-party candidate Richard Bergeron, a bicycle-riding urban planner who is campaigning to promote public transit. But Mr. Bergeron's oddball views and interest in 9/11 conspiracy theories have turned some voters off.

"At the outset of the campaign, all Montrealers wanted was someone who would look after mundane problems like fixing the roads," says Mathieu Gagné of Léger Marketing, a polling firm.

But ethics and nasty accusations have dominated the campaign. "Voters," he said, "are just left with cynicism."

With a report from Les Perreaux

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