The mayor of Laval says he was stunned by Thursday afternoon's massive flurry of police activity in his hometown, wherein 70 provincial anti-corruption agents raided his home and the city hall of Quebec's third-largest municipality.
"What I am facing today has come as a total shock to me. It was totally unexpected, and I can affirm to you that this is not a pleasant situation," Gilles Vaillancourt said at a news conference Friday.
"Regardless of the reasons for this police operation, they have our full co-operation. However, I cannot make any comments on the reasons or aspects of this operation since I don't know what they are."
Quebec's anti-corruption squad — known by its French initials, UPAC — raided Laval City Hall, buildings housing the municipality's engineering and human resources departments, and Vaillancourt's home starting Thursday at about 3:45 p.m. as part of an investigation into the awarding of contracts.
City hall staff were evacuated from the building, following which investigators carried away boxes of files and computer hard disks.
Vaillancourt addressed few of the abiding questions in the wake of the raids.
"I will not be resigning, nor will I comment on the rumours and various remarks being made," he said.
His prepared comments were short, following which he left the briefing room, leaving a spokesperson to respond to journalists clamouring for answers.
Spokesperson Johanne Bournival said the mayor didn't field queries "because we don't have any information." UPAC's search warrants have been sealed, she said, and investigators haven't divulged to the city what exactly they're looking for.
She insisted the mayor hasn't been trying to avoid reporters, in response to questions about why Vaillancourt made no public appearances on Thursday following the raids and why he entered city hall on Friday morning through the garage and not the front door.
Bournival said the mayor was expecting to be called before the Charbonneau commission, Quebec's public inquiry into corruption in construction-contract tendering, but so far hasn't been issued a subpoena.
Thursday's raids were UPAC's highest-profile moves against a politician since the squad was created last year. Previously, the mayor of the Montreal-area municipality of Mascouche and two former mayors of nearby Boisbriand have all been criminally charged on contract-related matters, as has the onetime right-hand man of Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay, former city councillor Frank Zampino.
Quebec Labour Minister Agnès Maltais said the raids show why her Parti Québécois continually pressed the former Liberal government to create the Charbonneau commission.
"Quebecers are starting to see learning why we demanded this commission for 2½ years," she said.
Vaillancourt, who is not accused of any crime, has enjoyed a 23-year reign at the helm of Laval, and his municipal party currently holds all 21 seats on city council.
But he has been the subject of allegations of political impropriety for at least two years. In November 2010, CBC's French-language news service reported that he offered $10,000 in illegal cash contributions to the election campaign of a Parti Québécois candidate for Quebec's national assembly, and an unspecified amount of cash to a Liberal candidate. Vaillancourt denied the accusations. Radio-Canada reporter Alain Gravel said investigators began looking into Vaillancourt around that time.
"This didn't start yesterday. It's been a long time," said Emilio Migliozzi of the Mouvement Lavallois party, which ran candidates against Vaillancourt's PRO des Lavallois party in the last municipal election (Laval has no formal opposition faction at city hall).
"This isn't new here. Once more, we've seen that he doesn't answer questions, there's no transparency. We just want him to answer with the truth. A search at the city is one thing, but a search at his home — it's serious, it's very serious."
Migliozzi said he had highlighted what he saw as suspicious city contracts to investigators with the Charbonneau commission, but he had no idea whether Thursday's search warrants were related to that.
Westmount mayor goes after Vaillancourt
With Vaillancourt's party's stranglehold on Laval city council, it's unlikely he'll face much dissent there, but at least one other Quebec mayor weighed in Friday to call for his colleague to be reprimanded.
Peter Trent, the mayor of the Montreal Island city of Westmount, exhorted the Union des Municipalités du Québec — the provincial association of civic governments — to suspend Vaillancourt from his positions at the organization.
Vaillancourt is on the UMQ's executive committee and chairs its Greater Montreal caucus, but Trent said no one should be able to serve in those capacities who doesn't have "an exemplary comportment with no suggestion of irregular behaviour."
Trent quit the UMQ's executive in 2010 when the last round of accusations about Vaillancourt surfaced and he refused to step down from the committee.