Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum faces 14 charges including fraud

'No one is above the law,' says Quebec's anti-corruption squad

MONTREAL – The same Montreal interim mayor who had cast himself as the man to clean up corruption scandals plaguing the city has now been arrested.

Mayor Michael Applebaum was picked up at his home Monday morning by Quebec’s anti-corruption unit. He faces 14 charges including fraud, conspiracy, breach of trust, and corruption in municipal affairs.

The news came just seven months after Applebaum rose to his role by promising to lead Montreal out of its era of sleaze. In a skilful bit of political manoeuvring last fall, he courted support from different parties and was elected by council on an interim basis to replace Gerald Tremblay.

Applebaum had promised not to run in the upcoming election, slated for November. But his interim appointment was enough to make history: he became the first Anglophone mayor of the city in exactly 100 years.

Signs of trouble surfaced soon afterward.

Anti-corruption officials raided Montreal’s city hall in February. They also targeted offices in various boroughs, including the one Applebaum represented for many years.

“We can no longer tolerate these reprehensible acts committed towards the management of our public institutions,” said Robert Lafreniere, head of the provincial police anti-corruption squad.

“No one is above the law — and you can’t hide from the law.”

Also arrested Monday was a former employee of the Harper government. Saulie Zajdel was also a Conservative election candidate in 2011.

Saulie Zajdel, who worked in a ministerial office for the federal Tories on ethnic outreach, faces five charges including breach of trust, fraud and corruption. Zajdel had been nicknamed the “Shadow” MP as the Tories hoped to gain a foothold in Montreal in the riding of Liberal Irwin Cotler.

Cotler urged people not to rush to judgment against his rival.

“I was made aware of the arrest of Saulie Zajdel from media reports this morning. Everyone benefits from the presumption of innocence,” Cotler tweeted.

“Thus I have no comment while the police investigation and related process in this matter are ongoing.”

The charges stem from alleged acts that occurred between 2006 and 2011, before Applebaum became mayor. While officials offered few details, they said they relate to real-estate projects in the west-end borough Applebaum led.

Police said the transactions being investigated were worth “tens of thousands of dollars.”

Now Applebaum’s city-hall allies — including the leader of the main opposition party, who last fall joined his coalition administration — are asking him to resign immediately.

The local politicians, however, say the city doesn’t need to be placed under provincial trusteeship like the next-door suburb of Laval.

Mayoral candidate Denis Coderre, a longtime federal politician, called Monday’s news “sad” but he said there’s hope for the city.

“I think the message we have to send today is that Montreal is bigger than only a few individuals, Coderre said, arguing against trusteeship. “The rotten apples, they’ll be taken out… But we can’t put everyone in the same basket.”

Coderre added, in a message to Montrealers: “You have an alternative. I am that alternative.”

Applebaum is just the latest Quebec mayor to be arrested by the anti-corruption unit. The next-door suburb of Laval is even more deeply submerged in scandal.

Gilles Vaillancourt, the former longtime mayor of Laval, was arrested in a sweep last month and charged with fraud and gangsterism.

The provincial police squad alleges that the city hall Vaillancourt led was essentially a criminal organization, with officials there allegedly enriching themselves off local construction deals.

In Montreal the last elected mayor, Tremblay, resigned when a witness at a corruption inquiry said he turned a blind eye to illegal financing in his now-defunct political party.

Now the interim successors to both men are embroiled in their own troubles.

In Laval, the provincial government has declared trusteeship after inquiry testimony that almost all council members, including the interim successor to Vaillancourt, participated in illegal financing schemes.

And next door in Montreal, the mayor has been detained.

In his speech to council, on the day he was chosen mayor, Applebaum cast himself as a historic candidate but not for linguistic reasons. He had brushed aside questions about language, and didn’t utter a word of English in his speech Friday.

Applebaum said his victory would be historic because he wanted to create a multi-partisan coalition, uniting former foes to clean up the scandal-plagued city.

“We will regain the confidence of our citizens,” Applebaum said at the time.

“With everything that’s been going on, I understand that they’ve been hurt.”