There is something Shakespearean about the political and personal consequences of the revelations of the Charbonneau Commission. The names and pictures of officials, politicians and corporate executives have graced the front pages of the tabloids as they have been caught in the web of revelations of collusion to rig contracts with the city of Montreal. It is difficult to feel much sympathy for these people, but there is at least one important exception: former Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay. His fall is the stuff of tragedy – for one public official, and even more important, for public life. As I write, Tremblay has just concluded his day in court, six months after he left office, telling his side of the story under the commissioners’ relentless cross-examination.

Tremblay appears to have won a certain measure of public sympathy, but it will not put back the pieces of his shattered career. Nothing will change the fact that between 2001 and 2012 he was at the top of an administration under which contracts went out to favoured construction and engineering companies. The simple thing is to look no further than the Mayor and his party, Union Montreal, which won a majority on City Council in 2001, 2005 and 2009. But if we do look further, and deeper, we find a much more complex story.


The city of Montreal was ruled for many years by one man, Jean Drapeau. In the 1970s a left-wing opposition to the Drapeau administration was formed. The Rassemblement des Citoyens de Montréal (RCM) or Montreal Citizens’ Movement won power in 1986, with labour lawyer Jean Doré elected mayor. No one could accuse this collection of trade unionists, community activists, left-wing Péquistes and progressive intellectuals, which won a second term in 1990, of being a tool of developers and speculators. Beyond ideological incompatibility with developer interests, elected RCM politicians’ decisions were circumscribed by an active grassroots membership that scrutinized their activities at every turn.

In 1994, the RCM lost to Pierre Bourque and his fledgling Vision Montreal. Bourque’s party was reminiscent of Drapeau’s Civic Party – little more than a vehicle for choosing and electing city councillors. A very different relationship between civil servants and elected politicians was instituted, as noted by Linda Guylai of the Montreal Gazette (see page 83). After Bourque and his party were reelected in 1998, electoral authorities uncovered many illegalities in Vision Montreal’s fundraising, but these revelations were largely ignored. Public and media attention at the time was focused on the Quebec government’s forced merger of the 28 formerly independent suburban municipalities on Montreal Island with the City of Montreal – a controversial act vociferously supported by Mayor Bourque. The suburban mayors opposed the merger, and they came together under the leadership of Mayor Georges Bossé of Verdun in an effort to defeat Bourque in the first “unicity” election slated for 2001.

The mayoral candidate they recruited was Gérald Tremblay, who had served in Premier Robert Bourassa’s cabinet in the early 1990s and had a reputation for integrity. Tremblay was that rare combination: a committed social reformer with an appreciation of business. The suburban mayors negotiated a coalition with the much weakened RCM, which like Tremblay had been ambivalent about the merger, supporting the principle but not its imposition from above. Although the typical suburban administration was a one-man show, the mayors accepted the RCM’s insistence on forming a new and, in principle at least, democratic party, the Montreal Island Citizens Union (UCIM), later Union Montreal. UCIM called for a decentralized structure for the new unicity; the RCM focused on borough councils in the inner city that would play a role a similar to that of the councils operating in the former suburban municipalities.

For the RCM, Tremblay’s links to the cooperative movement made him attractive despite his – rather superficial – Liberal Party affiliation, an affiliation he shared with a number of the former suburban mayors. Tremblay won the 2001 unicity election, and by sweeping the former suburban island municipalities, UCIM won a majority on the enlarged City Council with 43 of the 73 seats. This result was reflected in Tremblay’s choice of one of the suburban mayors, Frank Zampino of Saint-Léonard, as Chair of the Executive Committee, with Bossé as Vice-Chair. Zampino’s years of experience at the top rungs of the former metropolitan structure, the Montreal Urban Community, was something Tremblay was happy to fall back on when it came to detailed administrative matters. Indeed, rather than being the mayor’s man, as were previous Executive Committee chairs, Zampino’s suburban connections gave him a power base in the administration, on Council and in the executive.

Tremblay and Zampino had immediately to deal with integrating the 28 municipalities with Montreal, and four years later with the exit of half of them after the new Liberal government in Quebec instituted a referendum process for demerger.1 In his testimony before the commission, Tremblay stressed the problems this posed for the city, along with his pride in improving the lives of Montrealers with such measures as giving real powers to local city halls in the city’s boroughs and expanding social housing, public transit and libraries. The Union Montreal team was easily reelected in 2005, but Frank Zampino did not serve out the new term, resigning in 2008.

We now know that, when first elected in November 2001, Tremblay was told about “rumours” of corruption, rumours he could not confirm. As was corroborated by his successor Michael Applebaum, Tremblay only found out about the existence of a 2004 report into the extent of corruption when the report surfaced in 2012. The report investigated collusion between local construction companies and city officials in which entrepreneurs divided the contracts among themselves in a “closed market.” These practices had been in place under Bourque and apparently continued under the new administration.

The report estimated that the additional cost to the city was as high as 40 per cent on some contracts. Apparently, according to testimony before the commission in February 2013 by Serge Pourreaux, head of the city’s purchasing department from 2003 to 2006, it led to a proposal for a new optimization strategy for monitoring contracts which could result in savings of up to $50 million per year. While the Mayor was delighted, the proposal ended up being torpedoed by the public works department. In Pourreaux’s view this could not have happened without the complicity of Frank Zampino.

The 3 per cent

Construction contractor Lino Zambito testified that he paid a commission equivalent to 3 per cent of the value of sewerage rehabilitation contracts awarded by the city to a mafia-linked cartel he represented. A similar claim was made in testimony about engineering company contracts. Michel Lalonde of the firm Génius identified common practices going back to the Bourque administration in the 1990s. At the centre of a system of kickbacks that operated until 2009 were the city’s public works director, Robert Marcil, and former Union Montreal financing head Bernard Trépanier. Lalonde described how he and Trépanier reviewed lists of upcoming contracts and predetermined the winners. Marcil put their decisions into effect in creating the selection committees. Lalonde also testified that he collected money from the various participating engineering companies to give to Union Montreal, i.e. to Trépanier.

Lalonde’s assumption that Frank Zampino was involved with Trépanier when it came to distributing contracts to the consortiums of engineering firms was shared by François Perrault of the engineering firm Genivar. Trépanier, a veteran political fundraiser, had previously worked as chief fundraiser for his friend Frank Zampino in Saint-Léonard. Though he held the job of financial director of Union Montreal only between 2004 and 2006, he apparently continued to receive the money on behalf of the party afterwards. In his testimony, Trépanier denied the 3 per cent claim: it was only a matter of selling tables to fundraising events to those who had won contracts, though he admitted that the number of tables successful bidders were to buy was proportional to the size of the contract.

According to Tremblay, he himself fired Trépanier in 2006 immediately upon being told in confidence of a shakedown of a developer for a million dollars that Trépanier had attempted “in the name of the Mayor.” He insisted that bribes being paid to Trépanier did not find their way into the coffers of the party, and could not do so given the strict reporting regulations of the Director General of Elections. It was a related accusation that had brought him down in the fall of 2012, when former party organizer Martin Dumont testified that the Mayor was aware that his party was hiding expenditures and thus violating campaign spending limits in a byelection in Saint-Laurent borough in 2004. According to this testimony the Mayor got up from his seat and walked out of the room when the subject was raised, saying, “I don’t want to know about this.” In resigning, Tremblay denied this accusation vehemently, and asked to be heard by the commission.

On April 29, 2013, he finally got his chance, rebutting Dumont’s by now effectively discredited charges. When asked by the Commission why he resigned if the testimony was false, he answered: How could I serve the needs of Montreal, when public statements by the Marois government denied my legitimacy and authority?

One of the remaining mysteries facing the investigators is: Assuming the bribes were actually paid, where did the money go? No one has suggested that any of this money reached Tremblay personally, or indeed that he even knew about the payments to Trépanier or corrupt city officials. In his testimony, Tremblay revealed that he fired city manager Robert Abdallah when he received confidential evidence of Abdallah’s chumminess with Tony Accurso, whose firm had won a huge – apparently rigged – contract to put in water meters, and Rosaire Sauriol, vice-president of engineering contractor Dessau, the other member of the water meter consortium. In his own testimony, Sauriol told the commission that it was obvious that Frank Zampino was in charge. Indeed, he said, Zampino and Trépanier were often dismissive of Tremblay: “Mr. Tremblay was not aware of the projects – he didn’t follow what was going on.”2

The case of Frank Zampino, who in his testimony acknowledged close relationships with Trépanier and Sauriol, is quite different. Zampino resigned in 2008 amid rumours about a suspect land deal between the city and construction magnate Paolo Catania (which resulted in his arrest in May 2012 on fraud and conspiracy charges). It also came out after he resigned that Zampino had been one of those who travelled on the Touch, Tony Accurso’s luxury yacht. In his testimony Tremblay said that he was furious when he learned that, after leaving office, Zampino was to go to work for Dessau, which had been publicly accused of conspiring with Accurso to rig the water meter contract. Tremblay said he called the president of Dessau unsuccessfully urging him not to hire Zampino.

A look at all the testimony about Montreal before the commission makes it clear that the picture of a corrupt Tremblay-led Union Montreal is inaccurate. Instead, we have a pattern of collusion between contractors and corrupt officials going back at least to the Bourque administration and to some of the suburban municipalities that were absorbed into the city.

There is some irony in all of this. One of Tremblay’s consistent goals throughout his career was to bring businesspeople into public service, to channel economic energies into socially positive outcomes. What the commission has revealed is the other, dark side of this fusion. Rather than businesses being brought into the culture of public service, the culture of private business, in which it is normal to cultivate clients with meals, hockey tickets, even junkets, found its way into practices in Montreal and other Quebec cities, where the clients were public officials spending taxpayers’ money. The further irony is that it is because such perks held no personal appeal for Tremblay – those who know him will tell you that he is among the least susceptible of Quebec politicians to personal corruption – he was slow to see this other side of the relationship.

The media reaction to Tremblay’s day in court was that he acted too little, too late and too privately in rooting out corruption at city hall. But the fact is that the real problem is in the structure: from the role of the city manager on down, it is set up to insulate officials from interference by partisan politicians. It looks different in hindsight, but a mayor questioning a given contract handed down by a committee of city officials would be perceived not as fighting corruption but as seeking favours for his supporters. Tremblay and elected Union Montreal officials should have held those in charge of party finances under tighter scrutiny – but they were not themselves corrupt.

Can public officials be trusted?

In late April 2013 the city announced that Dessau would not be allowed to bid on contracts with the city for the next five years, and that the same would apply to any company that has admitted to or has been found guilty of collusion. This will make a difference, as will the fact that individuals who have admitted participating in such practices have lost their jobs. But what of the wider and deeper problem? Montreal Gazette urban affairs columnist Henry Aubin has consistently called for the dismantling of Montreal’s urban parties, applauding the independent status of the current interim mayor, Michael Applebaum. There is something to his logic that it is harder to effectively bribe a bunch of independents than a single party. But it is also hard to imagine any kind of coherent policy setting without likeminded politicians seeking office in a metropolitan city like Montreal getting together, so it could come down to a choice between recognized parties governed by regulations, and informal arrangements operating beneath the radar.

Part of the solution lies in transparency regulations that will improve media and public scrutiny over public spending. In Sweden, which often serves as a model in public policy discussions in Quebec, the general public and the mass media have access to all official records and documents of public authorities at all levels, including tax information of individuals; whistleblowers are protected by law; and there are ombudsmen in place to assist in the process. It is such mechanisms that account for the high levels of trust in public officials in Sweden.

Over time, instituting better transparency measures will help. But the immediate effect of what has been learned is to reinforce the message that government should be trusted as little as possible with honest citizens’ taxes. This is the where the real challenge lies. The story of Gerald Tremblay that has emerged is less an individual tragedy than a collective one, and the real victims are citizens who count on having competent and caring people in public service. The saddest legacy of the Charbonneau Commission could be that future Gérald Tremblays will eschew public life.

Gérald Tremblay grew up in Montreal. He has a law degree from the University of Ottawa and an MBA from Harvard, where he worked with Michael Porter, the popularizer of industrial clusters. After teaching at the University of Montreal’s École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC) from 1974 to 1977, he worked at the Fédération des Caisses d’Entraide Économique du Québec and the Société de Développement Industriel. He was elected as the Liberal MNA for Outremont in 1989 and immediately named Minister of Industry, Commerce and Science. Seven years later, with the Liberals out of office, he resigned and returned to the HEC and international consulting. His involvement in Montreal politics began when he was invited by Montreal City Manager Guy Coulombe to investigate popular participation in city decision-making; his 2000 report was ignored by the Bourque administration. At the urging of some active citizens, Tremblay joined forces with the former suburban mayors to oppose Bourque in the 2001 election for mayor of the newly merged city. After winning that election, he was reelected in 2005 and 2009, and resigned as mayor in early November 2012.

15_zampinoFrank Zampino began his career as a city councillor in the former city of Saint-Léonard on Montreal Island’s east end in 1986. He went on to become mayor of Saint-Léonard in 1990 and occupied important positions in the Montreal Urban Community. As a chartered accountant he was a natural candidate among the former suburban mayors for Montreal Executive Committee chair after the merger. He held the position until he announced his retirement from politics in May 2008, 17 months before the end of the Tremblay administration’s mandate, and took a job with a major contractor with the city, Dessau. A 2008 land deal, the Faubourg Contrecœur, between the city and construction magnate Paolo Catania resulted in his arrest along with eight others on fraud and conspiracy charges in May 2012. On March 22, 2013, he, Paolo Catania, Bernard Trépanier and several others appeared in Superior Court to answer charges of fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy in that case. They will return to court to face charges that they inflated the level of soil decontamination required to decrease the value of a large piece of land on which 1,800 homes were to be built from $19 million to $4.4 million.


1 See Robert K. Whelan, Richard Vengroff and Pierre Joncas, “Breaking up is hard to do: Merger and demerger in the Montreal megacity,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2004, pp. 96–105, and Robert K. Whelan and Pierre Joncas, “Montreal demergers: An update,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2005, pp. 94–99.

2 Toronto Globe and Mail, March 20, 2013.