Here’s the truth, ladies and germs: I left the room after watching Bernard Trepanier today thinking down was up, left was right and that freedom was most definitely slavery. Actually, maybe Orwell’s the wrong reference here. You need you some Kafka to get at the contradictory, truly batshit-backward nature of Trepanier’s testimony today. “I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.”
That was Gregor in The Metamorphosis, and while Trepanier didn’t turn into a giant bug, the one-time fundraiser/bagman for former mayor Gérald Tremblay’s Union Montreal party certainly squirmed and looked confused throughout his time on the stand. In turn, the squirmy, confused Trepanier befuddled the rest of us watching the anti-corruption Charbonneau inquiry—which may well be his goal.
Trepanier, you’ll recall, was dubbed “Mr. Three Per Cent” for his alleged ability to extract that amount from companies wanting to do business with the City of Montreal. He denied ever asking for that much—“it’s absurd,” he said—and said he was a simple fundraiser brought into the mayor’s fold largely at the behest of his good friend Frank Zampino. Other witnesses, notably engineer Michel Lalonde, said otherwise but, well, they weren’t telling the truth. “Lalonde was a liar,” Trepanier told commission chair France Charbonneau.
But, oh, the contradictions in what spilled out of Trepanier’s own mouth. In a raspy voice that sounds more like an extended smoker’s cough, he denied knowledge of any favouritism in the awarding of municipal contracts.
“Were you at the centre of a system that fixed contracts with the City of Montreal,” asked commission lawyer Denis Gallant.
“No,” Trepanier responded.
“No. I sold tables at fundraisers.”
Then, in that same irony-free rasp, Trepanier went on to describe the very system he denied existed. The fix was in, he said, when he arrived at Union Montreal in the early 2000s. By then, construction and engineering companies knew to grease the right palms in order to receive contracts from city hall. “Montreal was a closed system in 2000,” Trepanier said.
He said he solicited and received funds for Union Montréal from engineering firms, and would go about pairing these firms together in “consortiums” so that they may share the city’s bounty. “If there were eight engineering firms invited, we gave work to those that helped us,” he said, before adding, “The best won.”
“But ‘May the best win’ doesn’t work here,” Charbonneau interjected. “Were that the case, you wouldn’t be able to help your party.”
Trepanier tried to explain that the closed system was actually open, because “any engineering firm could bid.” He shrugged and half-smiled confusedly. Charbonneau looked incredulous. In the media room, journalists laughed out loud. I grabbed what was left of my hairs. The rest came out when, later on, Trepanier and Charbonneau had this exchange:
“You made it so that each firm had their turn,” Charbonneau said.
“Yeah, but we lost some,” he answered, “Because some of them cheated.”
And how, pray tell, were they cheating? By not adhering to Trepanier’s rules. In other words, they “cheated” by playing fair in a crooked system.
In 2005, Trepanier said, Michel Lalonde and his ostensible competitor Rosaire Sauriol told him to stop running the engineering contracts, because things weren’t working very well. “Don’t ask where the order came from,” Trepanier quoted Lalonde as saying. Roughly a year later, Trepanier said he was brought into the mayor’s office and relieved of his duties—and his $82,000 salary.
And then, the crowning contradiction. Why, if he was turfed out of Union Montréal, did Trepanier continue to work for the party without salary until 2008? Why would he raise money for people who had ostensibly spurned him? Because raise money he did—upwards of $30 million, according to some estimates.
As well, from 2002 to 2010, he received nearly a million dollars for consulting work from engineering firm Dessau—which would later score a $350 million water-meter contract with the city of Montreal.
At one point, Gallant asked Trepanier, “Did Gérald Tremblay like you?”
“I don’t know if he liked me, but I delivered the merchandise,” said the fundraiser.
He certainly did.