Montreal mayor's legacy tarnished by scandal

Gérald Tremblay quits his job as Montreal mayor 11 years after promising "to make this city a success," to be remembered as the politician alleged to have turned a blind eye to corruption.

Tremblay steps down amid charges he knew of illegal party financing

Gérald Tremblay arrived at Montreal city hall on Nov. 4, 2001, promising to be a unifying force for all Montrealers, "to make this city a success." 

Eleven years later — with just under a year to go before the end of his third mandate — Tremblay has left in disgrace, to be remembered as the political leader who is alleged to have turned a blind eye to illegal electoral financing in his Union Montréal party and to corruption within the closest ranks of his administration.

Political start in Bourassa cabinet

Tremblay, 70, is a lawyer by training.  He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and worked as a consultant for several financial institutions before moving to provincial politics in 1989. 

Elected as a Liberal MNA in Outremont, Tremblay served as minister of industry, commerce, science and technology from 1989 until the defeat of Robert Bourassa's government in 1994.  Tremblay was re-elected and spent two years on the opposition backbench, leaving provincial politics in April 1996 to return to business.

Tremblay was a lecturer at the École des Haute Études Commerciales and established the Canadian franchise of the Dans un Jardin specialty boutiques with his wife, Suzanne Tailleur.

Tremblay campaigns as defender of suburbs

Tremblay emerged again on the public stage in early 2001, edging out the long-time head of the Montreal Urban Community, Vera Danyluk, and other municipal politicians as the most likely candidate to beat incumbent Mayor Pierre Bourque in what was to be the first election in the newly-merged island-wide city of Montreal.

Among his closest allies was Frank Zampino, then mayor of Saint-Léonard, along with the mayors of Verdun, Côte-Saint-Luc and other suburbs.

Many of Montreal's suburbs opposed the amalgamation foisted upon them by the PQ government, and Tremblay campaigned as the one who would best defend their interests. 

Tremblay hoped that the island-wide city would remain unified, but in 2003, Jean Charest's Liberal government was elected on the promise it would hold referendums on the mergers, allowing citizens the right to reconstitute their former municipalities.

In 2005, Tremblay was elected to a second mandate with a healthy majority – widening his margin over a deeply unpopular Pierre Bourque and campaigning on his success in negotiations with blue collar workers and in hanging onto the Shriners Childrens' Hospital, the Formula One Grand Prix event and the FINA international swimming competition.

He then saw the city through the demerger of 15 municipalities and the creation of the new island-wide administrative structure, the Agglomeration Council.

Allegations of corruption surface

It was in that second mandate, however, that allegations of corruption and financial misspending surfaced.

In 2007, the city of Montreal handed a $355 million contract — the largest contract in its history — to Génieau, a consortium that included the construction firm Simard-Beaudry, owned at the time by entrepreneur Tony Accurso.

Tony Accurso, it turned out, had a luxury yacht, Touch, that he used to entertain business and city officials.  One of them, Frank Zampino, was Tremblay's right-hand man and the chair of Montreal's executive-committee at that time.  Zampino also happened to be the politician in charge of awarding that controversial water meter contract.


'We were not informed of all the facts,'—Mayor Gérald Tremblay in 2009, commenting on the $355M water meter contract

In 2008, Zampino left the mayor’s office and accepted a top executive spot with the engineering-consulting firm Dessau Inc., another company involved in the water-meter deal. Zampino resigned from his Dessau post in 2009.

Less than two months before the 2009 municipal election, Tremblay was forced to cancel that controversial contract. 

"We were not informed of all the facts, and as a result of that, I’m acting today to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future," Tremblay said at that time.

In Nov. 2009, Tremblay managed to pull off another victory, but his recent accomplishments — the wildly popular Bixi bike-sharing program and the revitalization of the city's seedy downtown strip, now known as the Quartier des Spectacles — are likely to be overshadowed by the corruption scandal that has plagued this third mandate.

'I don't want to know,' Tremblay allegedly said 

The final straw came on Oct. 30, at the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in the construction industry.

Martin Dumont, a former Union Montreal worker, told the commission that during a 2004 set of by-elections in the borough of St-Laurent, Mayor Tremblay was in the room when two different sets of spending figures — one the "official" budget, the other the much more costly real budget — were presented by the campaign organizer.

Dumont testified that when the two sets of documents came out, Tremblay stood up and walked out of the room, saying "I don't want to know about that."

Tremblay immediately denied the allegation, and angrily demanded that reporters allow him to get on with his job.

"Let's talk about the facts when they are there," Tremblay said.

"Do you think I'm not upset about what's going on?" the mayor asked.  "But I can't comment, because I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow and the day after, and as mayor of Montreal, I've got work to do."

But by then, it was clear that many Montrealers  — and even some members of his own party — had lost faith in the mayor.

Two days later, after cancelling several public engagements,  Tremblay didn't show up for work, his officials saying he needed the weekend off.

On Monday evening, Nov. 5, Tremblay broke his silence, announcing his departure from politics.

Tremblay continues to deny he had any knowledge, beyond rumours, of corruption within his administration.

Legacy tied to corruption scandal

Linda Gyulai, the award-winning Montreal Gazette civic affairs reporter who broke the story of the water meter debacle, said Tremblay was not a flashy or flamboyant mayor, preferring to concentrate on doing the things that needed to be done for the good of the city.

"He wanted to be seen as the mayor who — after decades of neglect — would fix Montreal," Gyulai said. "We needed to fix the underground water network.  The pipes are leaking.  They're falling apart. The roads are falling apart."

But she said unfortunately for the affable and mild-mannered Tremblay, his legacy will likely be tied forever to the corruption scandal.

"When he said 'I didn't know,' [of the water meter scandal] some people were stupified...but they believed him," Gyulai said.

"I think that's changed now."