'Elections aren't cheap': Real estate manager recalls Michael Applebaum's words

Robert Stein told a Quebec court Monday he was bullied into forking over $60,000 in kickbacks, some of which went to the right-hand man of then-borough mayor Michael Applebaum for a real estate development in Côte-des-Neiges called Projet Troie.

Former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum, on trial for corruption, breach of trust, maintains his innocence

Former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum vowed to clean up corruption at city hall, but he was soon caught up in a scandal of his own and arrested by police seven months into his tenure. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian PRess)

A real estate manager has told a Quebec court that he felt like he was in a Sopranos episode in 2007 when he met with then-borough mayor Michael Applebaum and was asked to donate to a political fundraiser because "elections aren't cheap."

Former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum is on trial at the Montreal courthouse for conspiracy, breach of trust and two forms of corruption: municipal corruption and fraud on the government. All the charges date back to his time as borough mayor of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

Applebaum has always maintained his innocence.

Robert Stein is testifying about his involvement in Projet Troie, one of two key projects under scrutiny in the trial. The other is a municipal contract for the management and maintenance of the NDG Sports Centre.

Stein told the court that he took over the family real estate management business at the age of 24, when his father died.

He said in around 2006, he heard about a dilapidated apartment building for sale on de Troie Avenue in Côte-des-Neiges.

While the apartments were run down, Stein testified, they were located on an excellent corner in a part of town where the real estate market was "really exploding."

He said he and his partners, including Anthony Keeler, were considering tearing down the building and turning it into condominiums.

However, he said, there was opposition from the public.

He testified that the borough didn't want to reward the former owner for being a delinquent landlord and allowing the building to fall into such a state. 

Despite that opposition, Stein said that in the winter of 2006 or 2007, the project passed the first step in the approval process before the Urban Consultation Committee (CCU).

Phone call from borough mayor

Roughly two weeks after that meeting, Stein recalls a phone call from borough mayor Michael Applebaum.

He said the mayor wanted to know if Stein and his associate Keeler could meet in person to discuss different opportunities in the borough for social housing.

"First thing I did was call my mother. I thought I'd made it. Who doesn't want to make money with social housing?" he said.

"This was the best day of my life ... I'm getting phone calls from the mayor of the biggest borough of Montreal."

Later, Stein said, he found out the meeting had nothing to do with social housing. 

Former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum arrives at the courthouse accompanied by his defence team on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

$5K for cocktail tickets

Stein said he and Keeler agreed to the meeting and met Applebaum at the borough offices.

He testified that after they exchanged pleasantries, Applebaum asked, "Do you still do business with Toni Magi?"

Magi is a Montreal businessman with known links to organized crime.

Stein testified that while his father had invested in some of Magi's projects, he did not continue that relationship. 

"Mr. Magi doesn't have the best reputation in this city. It wasn't a name I thought would come up in casual conversation from an elected official," he said in court.

After that, Stein testified, the conversation turned to a political fundraising cocktail.

He recalled Applebaum saying either, "Elections are very expensive," or "Elections aren't cheap."

The court heard that Applebaum told Stein about an upcoming cocktail event, and Stein offered to buy 10 tickets.

Stein told the court Applebaum suggested it would be "preferable" if he agreed to deliver the $5,000 in cash to his then-political aide, Tremblay.

"It was a lot to swallow in a 20 to 30-minute period," Stein said.

'I would call it extortion'

Stein also corroborated testimony the court heard last week from Tremblay, Applebaum's former political aide and chief of staff.

He told the court that later in 2007, he learned he'd have to make another "political contribution" of $35,000 if he wanted to get permission to proceed with the project.

"A kickback, I guess, would be the definition. I would call it extortion. Some would call it a bribe," Stein testified.

He described Tremblay as Applebaum's "bag man" — a go-between who would accept the cash on behalf of his boss, to keep the whole arrangement at an arm's distance.

Mother withdrew kickback cash

Stein told the court that he asked his mother to withdraw the cash from her bank account, over time and in varying sums, to avoid suspicion.

He said he placed the cash into empty DVD boxes, put them in a bag and gave the money to Keeler, who delivered it in installments to Tremblay. 

'I was bullied'

During his testimony, Stein explained how he ended up forking over additional cash to other bureaucrats, all for the same Projet Troie development.

He said in total he paid roughly $60,000 in kickbacks for the housing project's approval

"Every single person has their hand out, on one project, on the first project I've ever developed," he said.

"I was bullied, extorted. I had no support from anyone around me."

Stein said the other two people he paid were former municipal councillor Saulie Zajdel and Jean-Yves Bisson, a former senior bureaucrat in Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

In 2015, Zajdel pleaded guilty to charges of breach of trust and corruption in connection with two real estate deals.

Bisson pleaded guilty to fraud during the same year and admitted to accepting a bribe from two businessmen.

Stein told the court eventually, he went to police to tell his story. 

He said it was months later that Applebaum was arrested and resigned as mayor of Montreal.

As for Projet Troie, Stein decided to wash his hands of it and sold the property. 

He said even though it appeared to be a profitable sale on paper, with all the added expenses it was a loss.

"It was a disaster," Stein testified.

The defence lawyer is expected to continue his cross-examination of Stein on Tuesday.

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien is a reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.