Montreal

'I realized … Michael Applebaum was open to corruption,' former aide testifies

Former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum instructed his political aide to ask for tens of thousands of dollars in cash from real estate promoters in return for bureaucratic favours and support, a Quebec court has heard.

'I have never taken a penny from anybody,' Applebaum said when he resigned as Montreal mayor

Former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum, who is facing 14 charges including fraud and corruption, arrives at the courthouse Monday, November 14, 2016 for the first day of his trial. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

A former political aide met Montreal real estate promoters in cafés, where they would hand over plastic bags filled with video game cases stuffed with cash, in exchange for bureaucratic favours, the corruption trial of Montreal's former mayor has been told.

Michael Applebaum's former political aide, Hugo Tremblay, was prosecutor Nathalie Kleber's first witness in the trial that began Monday.

Tremblay told the court he started to work for Applebaum at age 27, when the accused was the borough mayor of Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges – Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood.

During his testimony, Tremblay described how his boss taught him to arrange illegal fundraising and solicit cash donations from real estate promoters. 

At first, he said, he was hesitant and "uncomfortable" with some of the things Applebaum asked him to do. 

The Quebec court heard that during one conversation in 2007, Tremblay recalls Applebaum saying, "We gotta make a living."

"I realized at that moment that Michael Applebaum was open to corruption," Tremblay told the court.

He said his boss told him he "was not an angel."

Applebaum would later go on to become the mayor of Montreal who vowed to clean up corruption and erase the stain on city hall.

He has maintained his innocence since his arrest in June 2013. 

Tremblay testified he first learned that his boss was open to corruption after a meeting in the spring of 2007, when he met with Robert Stein and Anthony Keeler, two real estate promoters interested in an apartment building project on De Troie Ave in Côte-des-Neiges.

He testified that Applebaum introduced him as his "right-hand man" and he became the point person for arranging cash payments between them and the borough mayor's office.

'I did what Michael Applebaum said to do.'- Hugo Tremblay, Crown witness

The arrangement, according to Tremblay, was that he would meet the real estate promoters, ask for the cash payments, and in exchange he would get to pocket one-third of the sum.

"I did what Michael Applebaum said to do," he testified.

'We are going to have a good Christmas'

Tremblay testified that the first time he arranged a deal was in 2007, when he met Keeler in a café.

He said he explained there was some opposition to his real estate project within the borough, but that in exchange for extra money they'd be willing to support it.

Tremblay said he used a pencil to write out a figure on a piece of paper — $35,000 — and passed it over to Keeler, which Keeler looked at and quickly erased. 

Tremblay testified his boss's response was: "We are going to have a good Christmas."

Video game cases stuffed with cash

After they agreed on the sum, Tremblay told the court that he would meet the real estate developer at cafés to receive the cash payments.

During their meetings, he said they would make small talk, but never discuss the money.

Applebaum faces 14 charges including conspiracy, breach of trust, and two forms of corruption: municipal corruption and fraud on the government. He says the charges unfounded.

They are related to two projects in the CDN-NDG borough: A planned real estate project on De Troie Avenue and the maintenance contract for the NDG Sports Centre. 

Applebaum, left, pictured with his lawyer Pierre Teasdale in 2015, has consistently denied all charges against him. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Bluffing to get extra cash

Between 2007 and 2010, Tremblay said he became more accustomed to the way political financing worked, and started to take the initiative himself.

In 2010 a firm called SOGEP, which at the time was a subsidiary of the engineering firm Desseau, was in the run for a management and maintenance contract for the NDG Sports Complex.

Tremblay said he asked Claude Asselin, a high-ranking executive at the firm, if he could offer something "extra" in exchange for the borough's approval.

Asselin refused, Tremblay testified, so he bluffed and said the contract could be in jeopardy if he didn't pay up, even though it had been approved.

When he was turned down again, Tremblay told the court he reached out to Patrice Laporte, another Dessau executive, with whom he had a closer relationship.

They worked out a deal, and Tremblay said he met Laporte in his car on Montreal's Décarie service road to pick up the cash.

This time, he testified, it was $25,000, and he took it home and divided it in half, following Applebaum's instructions.

Vowed to clean up corruption

Applebaum climbed the municipal political ladder from borough mayor to the Montreal mayor's office after Gérald Tremblay resigned.

Applebaum managed to distance himself from Tremblay's political party, Union Montréal, and was elected by city council to the mayor's position.

When he was sworn in as mayor on Nov. 19, 2012, he promised to clean up corruption and "erase this stain on our city."

But just seven months into his term, he was caught up in a scandal of his own.

"I have never taken a penny from anybody," he said to Montrealers the day he resigned, calling all the allegations against him unfounded.

Will Applebaum testify?

Applebaum's lawyer, Pierre Teasdale, would not confirm whether his client would be testifying in his own defence.

He said he'll make that decision once the Crown wraps up its case.

Teasdale said Applebaum is glad his trial date has finally arrived.

Applebaum resigned from his position as mayor on June 18, 2013, the day after he was arrested on allegations of fraud, conspiracy, breach of trust and corruption in municipal affairs. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"Like any other person, his life has been suspended on many aspects because of criminal charges put against him," Teasdale told CBC News.

Applebaum has requested to have a trial before a judge alone, rather than a jury.

The trial is expected to last at least two weeks.

Clarifications

  • Michael Applebaum is charged with conspiracy, breach of trust, municipal corruption and fraud on the government. A previous version of this story said he was charged with fraud, however the Crown has clarified that fraud on the government is a form of corruption under the Criminal Code of Canada.
    Nov 15, 2016 12:46 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jaela Bernstien

Journalist

Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and human rights for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at jaela.bernstien@cbc.ca

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