Next month, The Walrus will publish my story about Quebec’s year-old commission on corruption in the construction industry and France Charbonneau, the Superior Court judge who is running the show. The commission hearings, which are broadcast live, have riveted the province. How could they not? There has been video evidence of Mafiosi stuffing cash in their socks, a description of a municipal party safe so stuffed with cash, it wouldn’t close, and testimony of grossly inflated public works contracts and false invoices.
Think of the Charbonneau Commission as must-see reality TV—a show presided over by a tough, no-nonsense woman in trademark red lipstick, who first made her mark on the public psyche back in 2002, when she successfully prosecuted Maurice “Mom” Boucher. He was the cold-blooded Hells Angels leader with the cuddly nickname who ordered the murder of two Quebec prison guards in a strike against the justice system. She put him away for life.
Now, Charbonneau has the lead role in a commission that is looking into strikes against taxpayers, who are the unwitting stooges in a complex, entrenched system of bid-rigging on public contracts, party financing, and kickbacks.
This week’s parade of witnesses is among the most anticipated so far, with a roster that includes disgraced ex-Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay and Frank Zampino, the former chairman of the city’s executive committee, who also resigned under a cloud. Then, there is Bernard “Mr. Three Percent” Trépanier, a longtime political organizer whose name has been mentioned more than 1,000 times during the inquiry. Many witnesses have painted him as a near-Svengali of financial corruption. From 2004 to 2006, he was the head of financing for Union Montreal, the political party headed by Tremblay. Trépanier earned his nickname because he allegedly asked construction bosses and engineering firm executives for a three percent cut of every municipal contract they won. In return, the contributing companies were given inside information and allowed to divide up contracts before they ever went to tender.
Plump, white of hair, and with a nervous smile, when Trépanier first took the stand on Tuesday afternoon, he disarmingly warned that a drinking habit in the 1970s has affected his memory, and he is hard of hearing. But he was a savvy witness, a people person who has carved a lucrative career out of “opening doors” and putting people together—conflicts of interest be damned. For example, a nebulous contract between 2002 and 2010 with the engineering firm, Dessau Inc., was problematic, especially given that during part of that time, Trépanier was on Union Montreal’s payroll, too. Although Dessau paid him about $100,000 a year, he couldn’t remember exactly what he did for the company, save that he found someone who could prepare paperwork that would help it win contracts from the main airport authority in the Montreal area.
He was friends with politicians, engineers, and construction bosses alike. He helped Bernard Poulin, the head of an engineering firm called S.M. Groupe Internationale and a potential witness before Charbonneau, quit drinking. And then there was Zampino, who left politics in 2009 and now faces charges in connection with a housing development in east-end Montreal; Trépanier told the commission that the two men are like family, and that he has worked on Zampino’s political campaigns free of charge. And he was charming in a way; asked why he called his company Bermax, he explained that his name is Bernard, and the appellation is “Bernard to the max.”
Charbonneau had not edited herself with previous witnesses. “Are you an imbecile? ” she asked former Montreal public works director Robert Marcil, for example. And she threatened to cite Nicolo Milioto, an alleged middleman between construction bosses, the Mafia, and Union Montreal, with contempt. But so far, she has been relatively gentle in her questioning of Trépanier, as has commission lawyer Denis Gallant.
But it has been hard to pin him down. He denies things outright, such as his skimming off the top of public works contracts. Sometimes he packs his answers with facts that may or may not be relevant. Other times he is vaguely terse. When commission Gallant described him as a “middleman,” Trépanier replied: “Maybe.”
Confronted with the fact that a company named Inspec-Sol paid him $30,000 in 2010, he hedged, stating that the payment was for help in recruiting new employees. Pushed, he added that it could have been for helping to “open markets in certain municipalities.”
Trépanier is trying it all, citing his age and inconstant health. And the fact that he is a good, loyal party man who would never give contracts to those companies that supported the opposition at Montreal’s city hall.
Confused? You are not alone. The world according to Bernard to the Max is a strange one, filled with contradictions, strong friendships, great loyalties, nefarious people who lie, and lots of payments made for nebulous reasons.
Lisa Fitterman is a National Newspaper Award winner and the author of two children’s books.