Allegations that a former Union Montréal fundraiser tried to extort $1 million were brought to the Montreal police chief in 2006, but no investigation was ever launched, according to former mayor Gérald Tremblay.
Tremblay told Quebec's corruption commission he personally confronted police chief Yvan Delorme about the allegations after he confirmed with the representative of a private company called Smart Centre that Bernard Trépanier had demanded the money from his firm.
"Delorme said very clearly, 'Gérald, there was no act committed, so there's nothing to investigate,'" Tremblay told the commission.
"I repeated again, 'You're sure there's nothing that we can do? We can't do an investigation?"
Tremblay said no investigation was launched.
The commission has already heard from several witnesses – including the alleged man behind the extortion demand, Trépanier – about the Smart Centre commercial development affair.
While Trépanier denied the allegations, others have said that he did indeed demand money from Smart Centre, which was interested in developing a shopping centre, to push the project forward.
Tremblay said he learned about the allegation after he received a confidential phone call one weekend.
He said he'd already met with the president of the company and thought the project was a good fit for the neighbourhood in which Smart Centre wanted to build.
"On the[Monday], I called the president of the company and said under no circumstances should you give one cent to have that project," he said. "You have a good project, and I'd be happy to meet with you if you need it."
Tremblay said he needed more proof before he took further action and wanted to be "very prudent."
'In the hours that followed, I went to see Mr. Zampino. I told him word for word what I'm telling you now.'—Gérald Tremblay on the sequence of events around Trepanier's firing
He called the company's representative in Quebec.
"He told me that Bernard Trépanier presented himself to him as an official of the mayor," he said.
He told Tremblay the same story – that Trépanier wanted $1 million to secure the project.
"In the hours that followed, I went to see Mr. Zampino. I told him word for word what I'm telling you now," Tremblay said.
Montreal's former executive committee chairman Frank Zampino, who completed his testimony earlier this week, insisted that the mayor had never made the link between the extortion allegation and the firing of Trépanier, who he considered a personal friend.
He said he only learned of the link months later.
Tremblay said that wasn't the case, and Zampino knew the sequence of events that preceded Trépanier's firing.
The former mayor said he pulled Trépanier into his office and dismissed him without explaining why.
Tremblay said that at no time did he tell Trépanier, as the ex-Union Montréal fundraising director claimed during his earlier testimony, that he was being let go because the party was cutting his position.
'I assume full responsibility,' ex-mayor says
Tremblay has remained out of the public eye since he resigned under a cloud in November as witness testimony mounted, implicating his Union Montréal party in a system of alleged collusion and fingering city workers for taking bribes from construction entrepreneurs.
He has been anxious to testify before the commission to tell his version of events.
While maintaining that he didn't know about the collusion scheme that has been the subject of the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses before the commission, Tremblay admitted to the inquiry that activity did indeed take place on his watch.
"I am accountable. I am responsible. I've admitted that I assume full responsibility," he said.
"If I was surrounded by some people who betrayed my trust, I accept that."
Zampino and the yacht
Part of that betrayal, according to Tremblay, came at the hands of Zampino.
The mayor's former right hand man didn't tell him about his trips on the yacht of a prominent Montreal developer because doing so would have cost him his job, Tremblay told the commission
He said he only learned about Frank Zampino's luxury vacations through the media.
"There's no doubt that he would have known my reaction," Tremblay said. "If he took the time to come and tell me that he was going on vacation on the boat of Antonio Accurso in February 2007 and again in February 2008… He knew it would have been dealt with."
"He would have no longer been the chair of the executive committee."
Tremblay said he had a good professional relationship with Zampino, describing him as part of a team committed to overhauling the City of Montreal's precarious financial situation. However, Tremblay admitted he would never have chosen Zampino to work with him in 2001 if he had known who Zampino's friends were.
Who is Tony Accurso?
Quebec entrepreneur Antonio (Tony) Accurso's name has been associated with several of the province’s biggest building firms, including Simard-Beaudry Construction, Constructions Louisbourg and Construction Marton.
Accurso used his luxury yacht Touch to entertain both business clients and city officials. One of them included then-Montreal executive committee chairman Frank Zampino.
In 2010, Louisbourg and Simard-Beaudry pleaded guilty to tax evasion. According to an agreed-upon statement of facts, some of the expenses written off were related to Accurso's yacht.
Accurso was arrested in April 2012 after a UPAC investigation found a system that, according to Sûreté du Québec Lt. Guy Lapointe, allowed "certain companies to gain an advantage toward the attribution of lucrative municipal contracts" in Mascouche, a municipality northeast of Montreal.
In a letter to employees a few months later, Accurso announced he was leaving the construction business, saying it was time to hand over the conglomerate to younger and more energetic people.
Tremblay said he suspects he was kept in the dark about suspicious or outright illegal activities within his entourage because everyone knew that he would have acted on that information, had he been aware of it.
"Everyone knew that if they came to tell me something that wasn't ethical, it would be resolved," he said. "For me, those were deeply held values."
He pointed to the firing of Robert Abdallah, the former city manager, as proof that he would have taken action had he known what was going on.
It was in fact Abdallah's relationship with Accurso that led to the senior bureaucrat's dismissal, Tremblay told the commission — revealing the reason for Abdallah's departure publicly for the first time.
Abdallah was Montreal's city manager from 2003 to 2006. Allegations that he accepted kickbacks from developers, which Abdallah vehemently denied, surfaced in testimony at the commission last fall.
Tremblay said he was told confidentially that Abdallah met Accurso regularly at a downtown restaurant. Tremblay decided he would have Abdallah replaced as soon as possible as he "had proof" that those meetings were inappropriate.
He didn't disclose the reason for his decision to dismiss Abdallah to Zampino or to Abdallah himself — who he said was probably only learning of it through his testimony.
"We gave him a year's salary to avoid prosecution by the City of Montreal," Tremblay said. "I don't have to confront a person who will give me 1,001 excuses."
Denies willful blindness
Several witnesses have said Tremblay was either in the dark or deliberately ignorant of the collusion and corruption going on at city hall and in the construction industry.
Commission prosecutor Sonia LeBel wasted no time earlier today asking the question that has hung over the hearings and Tremblay since allegations about trouble at city hall came to light.
"After everything we've heard, the big question people are asking is, where were you?" she said.
"I was never willfully blind," Tremblay replied. "I wasn't naïve. I'm not a naïve person. I trusted, and I assumed my responsibility. The challenges were enormous and, as mayor of Montreal, it was my responsibility to ensure those challenges were met."
Tremblay said he always acted when he was informed about potential wrongdoing at city hall. However, he said, his hands were tied if he had only rumours and no proof.
Union Montréal fundraising
Tremblay also denied any knowledge of cooked books within his political party. He said his campaigns were funded honestly and within the limits of the law.
However, Tremblay insisted there is no way that the so-called three per cent scheme, or the collusion arrangement that allegedly saw three per cent of the value of city contracts funneled back to the party by engineering firms, could have been possible.
He said there's no way the party could have hidden that kind of income and had no use for it, since it was able to win elections on its legitimate funds. He suggested that someone could have been pocketing the money if in fact engineers were paying those sums to Trépanier.
Commission chair France Charbonneau asked how, "in the same breath," Tremblay could be sure that there was no fundraising scheme if, as he stated earlier, he had no involvement in the party's finances.
"I had an official agent who had the responsibility of presenting a report to the chief electoral officer… That report covers every single dollar that came in," he said, adding that there was never any complaint from the elections authority.
"That would mean that what was happening, was happening honestly," Charbonneau responded.
"That's for you to judge. It's an important challenge that you have," he responded.