The Collector

Retired bagman Roger Desbois takes his turn in the Charbonneau Commission’s hot seat

Retired bagman Roger Desbois takes his turn in the Charbonneau Commission’s hot seat

Montreal may have Bernard “Mr. Three Percent” Trépanier, the former municipal party bagman who told the Charbonneau Commission—a provincial inquiry into rampant corruption in Quebec’s construction industry—that lawyers could question him until they were blue in the face, but he’d never admit to accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from engineering firms.

But Laval has Roger “the Collector” Desbois, a retired engineer who is now revealing all. Understandably nervous when he took the witness seat before the commission on Monday, he was soon in the zone, testifying that back in 2003, he began to collect two percent kickbacks from companies who’d won contracts via a thoroughly rigged bidding process. Thin, bespectacled, and softspoken, Desbois revealed that Claude Asselin, who was Laval’s city manager at the time, asked him to take on the job of—well, bagman is as good a word as any.

Certainly, Desbois admitted, it wasn’t the kind of job that one could actually apply for, as if in answer to an advertisement in the careers section of a newspaper. But he didn’t think it had any serious implications—you know, that it was illegal or something. Indeed, he didn’t think much of anything at all, especially after he was told that his own employer, a company called AECOM-Tecsult, had habitually won no less than 25 per cent of the city’s contracts because of this very system. Oh, and if Desbois turned down the offer to become “The Collector”? Asselin  apparently told him that Tecsult’s share might drop precipitously to 15 percent.

The testimony underscored such threats and a long-entrenched system of kickbacks that went straight to the top—namely, to the office of Gilles Vaillancourt. Laval’s former “mayor for life” now faces, with Asselin and over thirty other men, criminal charges of collusion and gangsterism (a criminal code amendment introduced in 1997 to toughen up sentences for people proven to be involved in organized crime). Normally, you’d think of a group such as the Hells Angels in conjunction with gangsterism, not Laval’s city hall.

On the stand, Desbois estimated that between 2003 and 2009, he collected at least $2.7 million in kickbacks, much of which went to Vaillancourt’s own political party. During one of his meetings with Vaillancourt, Desbois explained, the mayor wanted to know which companies paid kickbacks without complaint and which ones kicked up a fuss.

This intrigued commission head France Charbonneau. “What would happen to a company that refused to pay? ” she asked.

Desbois shrugged and smiled apologetically. “I don’t know, Madame. It never happened,” he answered.

Lisa Fitterman
Lisa Fitterman is based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country.