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This Montreal Trial Is Revisiting the Bad Old Days of City Corruption

Some critics say little has changed under a new administration.
February 17, 2016, 2:46pm

Frank Zampino, former chairman of the city of Montreal executive committee, testifies before the Charbonneau Commission in Montreal in April 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Charbonneau Commission

Frank Zampino is finally on trial.

Unless you're a close observer of Montreal corruption scandals, you probably don't know that he's the former number two guy at Montreal City Hall. Zampino, along with seven other men and a construction company Construction Frank Catania & Associés Inc., is facing charges stemming from a 2007 real estate sale.

The charges against Zampino and his co-accused include fraud, conspiracy, and breach of trust.

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Here's what we know happened: In 2007, the city sold the chunk of land, called the Faubourg Contrecoeur, to the above construction firm for $4.4 million [$3.2 million USD], giving it the go-ahead to develop an 1,800-unit housing project. The land, however, was assessed by the city to be worth $31 million [$22.6 million USD].

The Crown is arguing that, as chairman of the city's executive committee at the time of the sale and right-hand man to then-mayor Gérald Tremblay, Zampino was in on the scam. His co-accused include construction boss Paolo Catania and Bernard Trépanier, Tremblay's former fundraising chief. Trépanier's nickname was, according to court documents, "Mr. Three Percent," for the commission he pocketed on municipal contracts he helped award.

The trial, which will be decided by a judge alone, is the culmination of years of investigation and legal wrangling. The group was initially arrested in 2012, although Zampino and Trépanier, among others, have since been the subject of police search warrants in another case.

This is an important trial for Montreal. Its reputation took a beating when the alleged fraud made headlines, and the city has long been synonymous with municipal corruption in Canada. And while Toronto's Rob Ford got most of the press for his drug- and booze-fueled antics, it was Montreal mayor Tremblay who resigned in disgrace because of the Charbonneau Commission's inquiry into Quebec corruption.

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The big question now is, what has changed since Zampino and the rest of the players were arrested? And will the trial dredge up memories of the bad old days, memories that the city's boosters would prefer to bury?

Certainly, the long shadow of Montreal's corruption troubles still lingers at City Hall, despite a new mayor in Denis Coderre who has boisterously vowed that things will change.

In some ways, he has made good on his promise: Shortly after Coderre was elected in late 2013, he created the post of Inspector-General, who will oversee the awarding of contracts and look for cases of possible corruption.

But Coderre's opponents and critics say not nearly enough has been done to separate the new regime from the old. In fact, many councillors who were tight with Tremblay have rallied around Coderre's banner and are now part of his administration.

It's an issue that hasn't escaped opposition councillor Alex Norris.

"The same political machine is still running the show," he told VICE. While he wouldn't comment on the Zampino trial itself, and applauds the creation of the inspector-general post, Norris says that overall, things have "clearly not" gotten much better.

"Many of the faces at City Hall have not changed, and many of the people who benefitted from the corrupt campaign finance system are still there," he says. The culture of corruption "is by no means over. We cannot say that the election of Denis Coderre resulted in a clean sweep of city hall."

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Norris says the Coderre administration has awarded lucrative contracts to friends and political allies, including paying a former colleague from his days as a federal Liberal cabinet member $1,800 [$1,300 USD] a day for a three-month stint—total bill, $110,000 [$80,000 USD]—to help coordinate the settling of Syrian refugees in Montreal. And last month, it was revealed that Coderre hired a fundraiser friend to negotiate a new contract with the city's police force—at a sweet $670 [$480 USD] per day. Other examples Norris cites include awarding a different fundraiser a $21,000 [$15,000 USD] traffic consulting gig and the hiring of a campaign worker's son to work on a legal brief.

"This is the old way of doing politics," he said. "Rewarding friends and supporters with lucrative no-bid contracts."

For Harold Chorney, a political science professor at Concordia University, the Contrecoeur trial "certainly doesn't look good" for the city. Without speculating on the innocence or guilt of the accused, he does say that, when it comes to municipal corruption, "Montreal is not alone, but it is notorious."

Chorney gives Coderre more credit than Norris does. "Clearly there is a public commitment [to cleaning up city hall] with a great deal of moral fervor in Montreal these days," he says. He thinks Coderre is more open and transparent than previous city politicos, and does want to affect real change.

Chorney has several suggestions to help Montreal shrug off its sleaze-as-usual rep, and the most important one has to do with people here caring enough to do something about it. A more engaged population, he says, with high ethical standards can eventually keep politicians reasonably honest.

But to Norris, it's still painfully clear that, "We still have a long way to go to root out corruption at City Hall."

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