LAVAL, Que. – For much of his political life, he was known as “The Monarch.” Now, for the rest of his natural life, he risks being branded as “The Godfather.”
One of the Criminal Code’s most severe charges — directing a criminal organization — is being laid against the once-powerful mayor of Laval, Que.
That charge, one of two gangsterism counts and numerous other charges laid against Gilles Vaillancourt on Thursday, carries a maximum life sentence.
The 72-year-old Vaillancourt, longtime mayor of one of Quebec’s biggest cities, was among dozens of people swept up in a raid Thursday and became the highest-profile politician charged in the province’s ongoing corruption probes. Thirty-seven people face charges.
It’s believed to be the first time that charges of gangsterism, usually reserved for organized-crime groups, have been laid in connection with Quebec’s ongoing political scandals.
Vaillancourt served as mayor of Laval, the city just across the river north of Montreal, for 23 years before stepping down last November under a cloud of controversy.
He had run Laval with little political opposition since 1989. His critics gave him the nickname “The Monarch” because of his unfettered electoral success over the years.
On Thursday, the head of Quebec’s anti-corruption unit read out the 72-year-old’s name among those who faced charges.
Robert Lafreniere said the busts followed a three-year investigation that included 150 witness interviews, 30,000 wiretapped conversations and the execution of 70 search warrants.
“The investigation targeted the dismantling of an organized and structured network operating a system of corruption and collusion in the provision of public contracts,” Lafreniere told a news conference at provincial police headquarters in Montreal.
Lafreniere described the alleged criminal network as “well-established” and he said it included three distinct groups: entrepreneurs and engineers; facilitators, lawyers, notaries and a merchant; and a mayor, a city manager and a top municipal engineer.
The charges, he said, included fraud, fraud against the government, conspiracy, breach of trust, corruption in municipal affairs, laundering proceeds of crime, and gangsterism.
“These are extremely serious accusations,” said Lafreniere, who added that 120 police officers were involved in Thursday’s sweep.
“Today’s operation is a testimony of the magnitude of the corruption phenomena we are facing.”
Another person charged Thursday was former construction magnate Tony Accurso, whose name has been frequently mentioned at the Charbonneau Commission looking into corruption in the construction industry. He already faces charges in other cases.
Others charged include lawyers, former city officials, and construction executives.
Ironically, news of the charges surfaced as municipal leaders from across Quebec were gathered in Montreal for the annual meeting of the province’s federation of municipalities.
Vaillancourt’s arrest quickly became the topic of conversation at the conference and stunned several attendees, including Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay.
He expressed hope that the arrests would lead to positive changes.
He also voiced his disbelief that corruption might have been going on at high levels, for so long, without police stepping in.
“When you’re (a mayor) like me, making $135,000 a year plus an expense account, if you want to make more than that, do something else in life,” said Tremblay, known for his colourful and sometimes controversial remarks.
“If you feel obliged to rob your citizens on top of that, to do your work, it’s serious.”
Premier Pauline Marois, also in attendance at the federation’s meeting, was more cautious with her words. She said Quebecers must allow justice to run its course.
“We have a justice system and I’m confident that these actions will take us closer to restoring integrity in our institutions,” Marois said.
Vaillancourt stepped down last fall after he was hit with scathing testimony during the ongoing Charbonneau inquiry.
A witness accused him of pocketing kickbacks from construction bosses — something Vaillancourt denied.
At the time, the province’s anti-corruption unit had also raided two of Vaillancourt’s personal residences, along with his office. Investigators reportedly sifted through bank safety-deposit boxes looking for large amounts of cash.
Several hours after the bank raids, Vaillancourt announced he would step away from his mayoral duties citing health reasons. He said he would reflect on his political future.
A few weeks later, he called it quits for good.
In a solemn resignation announcement, Vaillancourt lamented the climate of suspicion in Quebec.
For years, he had loudly protested his innocence and threatened to sue those who accused him of corruption.
But that fire had become a flicker by the time he stepped down. He simply suggested that he had been hard done by.
“We are going through a very difficult, very painful moment as a society,” Vaillancourt told reporters in November, just days after Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay resigned amid his own swirls of corruption allegations.
“All elected people, at all levels, are accused of all sorts of wrongdoing. We’re hearing all sorts of things, we’re facing allegations that without being proven can irreversibly change someone’s reputation… I am one of these people, and I’m deeply hurt.”
He suggested quitting was his only option: “Whatever I say or do… the damage (to my reputation) is done.”
During his succinct farewell address, the mayor touted his record in overseeing the development of a once-sleepy farming community into a bustling and fast-growing municipality.
Laval had become home to more than 400,000 people — more populous than Halifax — by 2011, according to Statistics Canada.
Vaillancourt said he had always worked for Laval residents. He thanked journalists for their coverage during his career, then turned around and walked away without taking any questions.
With files from Lia Levesque in Montreal