MONTREAL – The Montreal replacement mayor who recently took office amid a corruption scandal, and who promised to restore public trust, has now been arrested in a bribery case.
Mayor Michael Applebaum was picked up at his home Monday by Quebec’s anti-corruption unit as part of a broader investigation into construction deals involving Mafia-linked figures and involving a public official who recently committed suicide.
Applebaum faces 14 charges including fraud, conspiracy, breach of trust, and corruption in municipal affairs, prompting widespread demands for his resignation.
Just seven months ago 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 pledged 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, at a Monday news conference.
“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 a Conservative election candidate in 2011. After narrowly losing in his bid to give Montreal its first Tory seat in a quarter-century, Zajdel was subsequently hired by a minister’s office to work on ethnic outreach.
Zajdel now faces five charges including bribery, breach of trust, fraud and corruption. He had been nicknamed the “Shadow” MP as the Tories hoped to gain a foothold in Montreal in the riding of Liberal Irwin Cotler.
The arrests quickly made headlines around the world.
There was a particularly humorous reaction in some media in the U.S., where news of the Toronto mayor’s ongoing political troubles is well known.
The Atlantic magazine ran a story on its website titled: “What the Heck Is the Matter with the Mayors of Canada?” The article began: “So a Canadian mayor was arrested Monday and, no, it was not the one you expect.”
It was a similar response on the Gawker website: “A major Canadian city woke up to find out that its mayor had been arrested at his home early this morning,” began a blog post, “and it wasn’t even the guy who smoked crack on video!”
Gawker was the site that first reported that it had seen a video showing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford apparently smoking crack. Ford has said publicly that he does not use crack cocaine and that the alleged video does not exist.
The Montreal 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 they suspect bribes were paid to influence zoning and permit decisions. They said the transactions were worth “tens of thousands of dollars.”
They would not say what figures were suspected of doing the bribing.
An investigative report by the French CBC said the third man arrested Monday, borough official Jean-Yves Bisson, once admitted in an interview to having discussed a local condo project with Mafia-linked businessman Antonio Magi and Nick Rizzuto Jr., the since-murdered son of reputed don Vito Rizzuto.
On a related note, police confirmed Monday that a recent suicide at the borough offices was part of the broader city-hall investigation.
Lafreniere was asked whether Robert Rousseau, a permits-and-inspections official at the Cote-des-Neiges-NDG borough who killed himself in March, was part of the case, and he said yes.
At the time of Rousseau’s death, the French CBC reported that he had been interrogated by police the previous day about the same condo project that his colleague admitted to having discussed with Nick Rizzuto Jr. Before Rizzuto was gunned down in late 2009, he worked in construction.
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.
So is the provincial government.
Premier Pauline Marois announced that the city will not be placed under provincial trusteeship like next-door Laval, which is even more deeply submerged in scandal.
She did, however, fire the political equivalent of a coup de grace upon Applebaum.
“Given the circumstances, it would be preferable for him to withdraw from his current role,” Marois told a news conference.
The current front-runner for the fall mayoral race, longtime federal politician Denis Coderre, 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. “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 left the provincial police headquarters after spending nearly 10 hours there. He walked past reporters, without commenting, into a taxi. It took a moment for the cab to leave because it was blocked by a crowd of media.
Applebaum is just the latest Quebec mayor to be arrested by the anti-corruption unit.
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 faces a court appearance in October.
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.
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.”
-With files from Peter Rakobowchuk, Sidhartha Banerjee and Pierre Saint-Arnaud