'King of Laval' Gilles Vaillancourt could face 6 years in prison, must repay $8M

Gilles Vaillancourt, who was mayor of Laval for 23 years until his arrest in 2013, pleaded guilty to fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy to commit fraud this morning as part of a plea bargain.

Former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt arrested in 2013 as part of anti-corruption sweep

Former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt arrives for a court appearance in Laval, Quebec on Thursday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The man once known as the "King of Laval" is behind bars.

Gilles Vaillancourt, who ran Quebec's third-largest city for more than two decades, pleaded guilty Thursday to fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy to commit fraud, dating back to his time as mayor.

Under an agreement reached with the Crown, Vaillancourt will voluntarily repay the city $7 million from a Swiss bank account, as well as roughly $1 million in other assets, including his condominium. He is also waiving his pension.

I accomplished great things in Laval, but I know the errors I committed are unacceptable.- Gilles Vaillancourt

The plea deal calls for Vaillancourt to spend six years in prison.

He could be eligible to apply for parole in a year.

Quebec Superior Court Justice James Brunton must approve the sentence, which will be handed down on Dec. 15.

Vaillancourt will remain behind bars in the meantime.

Expression of regret

Vaillancourt, who was Laval mayor from 1989 to 2012, appeared this morning at the Laval courthouse.

He stood as the judge read out each charge individually, answering "guilty" to all three with a solemn voice and neutral expression.

Later during the court proceedings, he read out a short statement apologizing for his crimes.

"I regret very sincerely the errors I have committed and, above all, the pain that I have caused my friends and family and the City of Laval," he said.

"I accomplished great things in Laval, but I know the errors I committed are unacceptable."

Nadine Touma, Vaillancourt's defence lawyer, said her client is hopeful people will remember his positive contributions to the city during his lengthy time in office.

"Mr. Vaillancourt is a man who dedicated his whole life to public affairs and did it with patience and talent," she said outside the courtroom. 

"He is now 75 years old, almost 76, and he is now looking for peace."

Crown prosecutor Richard Rougeau told reporters the plea deal, including the six-year sentence, came after lengthy negotiations.

Gilles Vaillancourt arrived at the Laval courthouse through a back entrance on Thursday. (Radio-Canada)

There was some confusion early in Vaillancourt's court hearing. At first, he refused to admit to his intention to commit the crimes, at which point the judge briefly suspended the hearing.

Upon resuming, Brunton explained to Vaillancourt that he had the right not to admit to his criminal responsibility. If he chose to do that, he would go to trial.

Following that explanation, Vaillancourt again pleaded guilty and admitted criminal responsibility.

Nabbed in anti-corruption raid

Vaillancourt was arrested in March 2013 along with 36 others as part of a sweep by the province's anti-corruption unit, known as UPAC. 

He was originally facing 12 charges, including conspiracy, fraud, influence peddling, breach of trust and gangsterism.

The gangsterism charges have been dropped as part of the plea deal.

Thirty-three of Vaillancourt's co-accused are still slated to stand trial.

As part of the agreement, Vaillancourt has admitted that he knew about a system of corruption and collusion within his administration at Laval city hall.

  The police investigation, which was dubbed Project Honor, looked into a system of corruption related to the awarding of public contracts by the City of Laval between 1996 and 2010.

Vaillancourt also admitted that during that time, certain sums of money were transferred from Canada to Switzerland, into various accounts held or controlled by Vaillancourt.

'No one is above the law'

Shortly after Vaillancourt pleaded guilty, Laval's current mayor, Marc Demers, released a video online declaring "mission accomplished." 

Demers, who took office three years ago, said his administration delivered on its promise to get the city's money back.

"This is the first step," he said in the video.

"We will be taking to court everyone who has stolen from the City of Laval. You can count on me."

At a news conference, Demers said city lawyers have been working with the Crown and the defence on the agreement since April.

He also noted the proposed sentence of six years, if the judge agrees to it, will be the toughest ever handed down to an elected official in Quebec.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said the fundamental message following the guilty plea is that "no one is above the law."

Couillard declined to comment on the specifics of the plea deal, saying it's part of an "independent process that no elected official can comment on."

with files from Jessica Rubinger