An unsinkable mayor torpedoed by Quebec's corruption scandals

LAVAL, Que. – Quebec’s corruption scandals may have torpedoed the career of a politician who, over a reign of more than two decades, appeared unsinkable.

If so, the province may now have its highest-profile political casualty from all its ongoing scandals.

Gilles Vaillancourt, the mayor of Laval, Que., says he’s temporarily stepping aside and will consider what to do next. The sudden announcement at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday came just hours after the latest raids by the province’s anti-corruption squad.

Vaillancourt says the move is prompted by doctor’s advice — not by search warrants.

“You will understand that in recent weeks a number of events have created a very painful situation that has affected the mayor’s life,” said a statement from the municipality, the third-largest in Quebec.

“As a result of this and on the advice of his doctor, the mayor has decided to take a break to rediscover the peace of mind necessary to enter a period of reflection.

“He will soon be able to share with you the fruits of that reflection.”

The 71-year-old mayor has had an iron grip on the city administration since 1989; he faced almost no opposition in an era where the once-sleepy Montreal suburb transformed into one of the fastest-growing communities in the province. He has a year left in his latest mandate.

The announcement came after yet more police raids.

A spokeswoman for the provincial police anti-corruption unit said the raids had been carried out at different financial institutions.

But she wouldn’t confirm reports that the targets were safety-deposit boxes linked to Vaillancourt. One report by Radio-Canada linked the police raids to enormous amounts of cash — “tens of millions of dollars” — held in overseas accounts.

Police have already raided two of Vaillancourt’s residences and his offices at city hall.

Vaillancourt has been hit with allegations of bribery in recent years but has angrily denied them.

A witness at the current Quebec corruption inquiry has accused him of taking kickbacks in exchange for construction contracts, and different political players have come forward over the years to accuse Vaillancourt of offering them illegal cash payments.

None of those claims have been proven in court, and Vaillancourt has challenged them.

In past elections, Vaillancourt has been re-elected with crushing majorities.

In 2009, he took more than 60 per cent of the vote — nearly triple the score of his closest challenger and more than all his opponents combined. He did even better in 2005, winning 74 per cent of the vote in a field of four candidates.