Judge Charbonneau hears from 'Mr. Three Per Cent'

Martin Patriquin on today's testimony at the inquiry looking into corruption in Quebec's construction industry

Long before he became known as “Mr. Three Per Cent” for his ability to extract this amount from those companies wishing to do business with his de facto boss, former Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay, Bernard Trépanier was known for his winning election campaigns. Both duties required his deft touch, ample Rolodex and penchant to bend rules.

Trépanier began his testimony today at the so-called Charbonneau commission looking into corruption in Quebec’s construction industry. The rusty-throated septuagenarian—now retired to Florida, where he enjoys polishing cars—was a longtime fundraiser and political aide to Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative Party. Yet it was his electoral work in and around Montreal that most interested the commission—if only because Trépanier admittedly broke Quebec electoral law to help elect his friends and clients to municipal office.

Trépanier calls them “turnkey elections.” The workings were simple: he’d offer a candidate his services, including campaign logistics and advertising, polling, and the recruitment of volunteers and staff. In return, the candidate would direct business to whatever firm paid for his or her winning campaign. (Few who went with Trépanier ever lost.) “There were fights between engineering and law firms and the cities over contracts,” Trépanier said.

“So it’s safe to say that the electoral laws set by René Lévesque in the ’70s were never respected?” asked inquiry lawyer Denis Gallant.

“I don’t think so,” Trépanier responded.

It’s quite an admission. In 1977, Lévesque’s PQ government enacted what were arguably the toughest electoral laws in North America, capping individual contributions and notably barring corporate donations. The scheme Trépanier used—he says he wasn’t the first—circumvented this law.

Trépanier’s turnkey elections won a raft of elections in the suburbs of Montreal. In 1990, he helped elect Frank Zampino to the office of mayor in the Montreal suburb of St Leonard. He became very close with the man who would become Montreal’s executive committee president, and who is currently awaiting trial on numerous fraud charges. “I never asked him for payment for my services,” he told Gallant. “A friend is a friend.”

Trépanier stuck close as Zampino’s star rose. In 2001, a youngish former provincial cabinet minister named Gérald Tremblay recruited Zampino to his team; coincidentally or not, Tremblay and his backers were reportedly impressed with Zambino’s fundraising chops. The pair, dubbed “L’Équipe Tremblay-Zambino” at Tremblay’s insistence, won the election. Trépanier soon started to work for the new government. His conditions: “I don’t deposit cash, I don’t sign cheques, and I don’t sit on any executive committee.”

He also started a consulting company. Founded in 2002, BerMax— “Bernard is my first name, and it’s Bernard to the max,” Trépanier explained— took on such clients as engineering firms Tecsult and Dessau. Between 2002 and 2011, the latter paid him $100,000 a year, apparently for liaising with a former Transport Canada employee who was helping the firm secure contracts with the city’s airport authority.

Of course, Trépanier’s real legacy was to come. His alleged ability to collect funds for Union Montreal, former mayor Tremblay’s party, was legion—and, in exchanging contracts for these donations, utterly illegal. Tomorrow, and the days after that, should be interesting.