Ex-mayor and 36 others charged in massive sweep

By Joel Ceausu, Robert Frank and Robin Della Corte

It was a stunning scene Thursday morning, the man once considered the most powerful mayor in Canada in handcuffs, led into a courthouse he inaugurated two decades ago.

As UPAC investigators arrested former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt and 36 other individuals in an investigation into corruption and collusion in municipal contracts, veteran Laval observers watched a stunning chapter unfold in the history of the man once equally revered and reviled.

It was a victory of sorts for Robert Bordeleau, as he stood on the same spot outside Laval city hall where eight months earlier, the leader of the Parti au Service du Citoyen told journalists and anyone who listened that arrests were coming. “Last year I said that after almost 40 raids I predicted Vaillancourt would be gone, his team would be finished and his party would disappear. It all came true.”

Laval Mayor Alexandre Duplessis, who recently applied to Quebec’s electoral authority to form his own political party in the lead-up to municipal elections this November, declined The Suburban’s request for an interview. Duplessis’ press secretary Pierre-Philippe Lortie said the mayor “has confidence that the judicial process will get to the bottom of things. At the same time, the Charbonneau commission will help us learn the appropriate lessons. Mayor Duplessis is concentrating on serving the needs of Laval’s residents,” Lortie said.

Confidence in police

For the Mouvement Lavallois’ David De Cotis, it was a long time coming. “Even with UPAC raids in October, November and December we feared that nothing would come of it, so we’re happy to see justice at work. This has built confidence in our police forces.” But De Cotis is not celebrating: “I feel sorry for many people in Laval who adored this man, almost worshipped him. I feel kind of bad for them, as we begin to see a true picture of how bad this was.”

Laval’s only independent mayoralty candidate Jacques Foucher called it “a sad day for Laval. The arrests were a disturbing but necessary evil, because the public needs to make a clean break so it can, in future, count on a better-managed civic administration.”

Jean-Claude Gobé has other ideas: Action Laval’s candidate for mayor renewed his call for Quebec to suspend Laval’s municipal government in the wake of the arrests. “It’s very disturbing,” Gobé told The Suburban. “We have asked Municipal Affairs Minister Sylvain Gaudreault to place the city under trusteeship…There are still 180 days to go until the next municipal election, and I’m very worried what could happen during the intervening six months, because Mayor Duplessis calls himself the dauphin of the Vaillancourt administration. The latest developments show that either he was asleep or was he in connivance with those people? It’s a very dangerous situation, which is why we have asked to have the city placed under trusteeship.”

Not enough for Bordeleau. “They are not finished with arrests and shouldn’t be. It’s impossible that everything was between closed doors; the entire executive committee cannot say they didn’t know anything. People consent by their silence.”

He says it is evident the state can build a big case against the former mayor, who ruled Laval for 23 years almost completely unopposed, and was said to have solid allies in all levels of government. “He had no more protection,” he said. “All of a sudden the PQ is in power and we have raids and arrests.” Bordeleau says he made repeated appeals to former Liberal Municipal Affairs Minister Laurent Lessard to investigate Laval city hall and the entire council to no avail. “I never even got an acknowledgment of my letters,” he says.

Huge undertaking

The criminal charges faced by Vaillancourt and an array of engineers and business people, lawyers and city managers, include fraud, conspiracy and gangsterism, portraying Vaillancourt as the head of a criminal enterprise. De Cotis says the UPAC operation was “a huge undertaking: to have a judge sign warrants to raid Vaillancourt’s bank accounts, his home, to plant listening devices, all this information gathered, it’s huge. For now justice has to take its course.”

All parties saw this as a step towards a brighter future: “Laval needs new blood, new faces, true transparency,” says De Cotis, “something that’s been never seen in Laval, and we will paint a true picture of Laval as it is now and how we will change it.” Foucher says independent candidates are the best bet: “For the first time in a long time, the public has the opportunity to elect people of different backgrounds and ways of thinking—a true democracy, if the electorate chooses a different path than it has in the past,” he said. “It’s important not to end up with a gang that’s bound by party lines, or there’s a serious risk that we’ll just end up back where we started.”

The arrests came a week after the city suspended director-general Gaétan Turbide and his deputy Jean Roberge, both slated to testify before the Charbonneau Commission, reportedly in camera. De Cotis said in that light, it is even more imperative to put the brakes on the current public funding for the Place Bell mega-project: “The mayor is no longer there, charged with gangsterism, the former DG, who was very much involved in that file, is not there, suspended and testifying behind closed doors to a corruption inquiry. This is a huge expensive project; can you imagine what went on?”

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