Gérald Tremblay was anxious—and for good reason, too. Yesterday, at long last, the most prominent casualty (so far) of a corruption scandal that has enraged Quebecers took the stand before the Charbonneau Commission.
The former mayor of Montreal gave quite the performance: at times passionate, eager, and wounded; at other times sounding incredibly naïve, despite insisting that he is not naïve in any way.
Tremblay is a former provincial cabinet minister who became mayor of Montreal after the city’s 2002 merger with its suburbs. It was, and remains, a time of financial turmoil. He started his day at the commission stating that he had not been involved with political financing, and asserted there was no way his Union Montréal party had skimmed 3 per cent from construction contracts that his administration awarded.
“It’s impossible!” he said. “What would we have done with all that money?”
Come again? It may have been a good question (what was done with all that graft?), but it was the wrong one for a man who had said, minutes earlier, that money wasn’t his bailiwick. As Justice France Charbonneau, the commission’s chairperson, noted, if Tremblay wasn’t involved, then how in the world would he ever know that his party was flouting the rules?
That’s when commission lawyer Sonia LeBel bluntly asked Tremblay the question on everyone’s minds: “Are you naïve?”
Not at all, he shot back. Rather, he is just someone who trusts and takes for granted that people are honest.
In another word: naïve.
Tremblay went on to take full responsibility for whatever happened in Montreal during his stewardship, which began in 2002 and ended ignominiously late last year, after a former Union Montréal organizer testified that the mayor had known about illegal financing, but steadfastly ignored it.
Tremblay also spoke of meeting Frank Zampino, the former president of Montreal’s executive council, in 2001. At the time, Zampino was mayor of the city of Saint Léonard, an accountant who impressed his future boss with his strong family values and the prospect that he’d help whip Montreal’s pitiable coffers into shape. It’s why Tremblay appointed him his second in command. It’s why he could barely contain his tears when Zampino abruptly quit in 2008. And it’s why he was so enraged and betrayed when news broke soon after about a trip Zampino had taken with his buddy, construction magnate Tony Accurso, on the latter’s luxury yacht.
Why, Tremblay had not a clue that Zampino, who now faces criminal charges in connection with a land deal in east-end Montreal, was close friends with Accurso and Rosaire Sauriol, who resigned his position as vice-president of a major Quebec construction firm earlier this year.
Tremblay knew nothing! Or at least, he knew nothing except for the times when he suspected something, in which cases he always acted. Like, when SmartCentres, a division of Walmart, had wanted to open up shop in east-end Montreal, party bagman Bernard Trépanier—a.k.a. Mr. Three Percent, a.k.a. Bernie to the Max—asked for $1 million from the company as a “representative of the mayor.” Tremblay, upon finding out, called Trépanier into his office and fired him.
But when it came to the rest of Union Montréal’s business, Tremblay said he’d simply go where he was told— often to “five-to-sevens,” as cocktail parties are known here, where he’d give a little talk, shake a few hands, then get the heck out. Indeed, he spent so little time at these things, he never noticed that the same people were showing up: construction bosses and engineers, engineers and construction bosses. Can you believe it?
So it went. And so it will continue on Monday, when hearings resume.
“The Avenger” (May 2013) • Justice France Charbonneau is the steely calm at the helm of Quebec’s corruption inquiry
“Mr. Three Percent to the Max” (April 2013) • Bérnard Trepanier testifies at the Charbonneau Commission on corruption in Quebec’s construction industry
“Break Time Is Over” (April 2013) • In Montreal, the Charbonneau Commission on corruption in Quebec’s construction industry resumes after a holiday hiatus
“Cool Hand Frank” (April 2013) • Testimony continues at the Charbonneau Commission on corruption in Quebec’s construction industry
“Imperfectly Frank” (April 2013) • Frank Zampino ducks and dodges at Quebec’s corruption inquiry
Lisa Fitterman is a National Newspaper Award winner and the author of two children’s books.