LAVAL, Que. – To hear the police tell it, the sprawling municipality across the river from Montreal was run for decades like an organized-crime syndicate – a well-oiled, money-sucking machine where the mayor played the role of godfather.
Now felled by scandals, times are so tough for Laval’s ruling administration that it has been forced into the ultimate act of political disgrace: It’s asking to be placed under trusteeship.
The request was made Friday in the wake of the latest corruption allegations to rock the city – which is the third-largest municipality in Quebec and the 13th-biggest in Canada.
Laval’s municipal administration was recently likened to an illegal syndicate when police laid gangsterism and fraud charges against the former mayor, including the extremely serious accusation that he directed a criminal organization.
Now the new, interim mayor has been sucked into his own controversy and is resorting to drastic measures. He announced Friday that he had asked the provincial government to step in.
During a fleeting encounter with news reporters, Alexandre Duplessis said he had taken that step after speaking with the provincial municipal affairs minister, as well as the city’s executive body and council.
“We concluded that in this really extraordinary context it was in Lavallois’ interest to come up with a transitional solution,” Duplessis said.
“(It) would allow us to ensure continued service to the public while also ensuring the continued management under the current municipal council.”
He announced one more thing, before turning on his heels: He’s not sure about seeking re-election.
Duplessis had been under pressure to explain himself after he and almost every sitting municipal politician in the city was linked to illegal political financing by a corruption-inquiry witness.
He made his brief announcement and took one question from a reporter. He was asked whether he intended to remain mayor and said, yes, he planned to stay until the November election.
“I will continue my mandate. . . However, I remain realistic,” Duplessis said. “The current context has me reconsidering my candidacy for the mayoralty in November.”
Duplessis has only been in office a few months after replacing the last mayor – Gilles Vaillancourt, who has since been arrested and charged with gangsterism.
A witness at the Charbonneau corruption inquiry said under oath Thursday that local politicians took illegal cash donations for the purpose of finding family and relatives to write cheques.
That list of names included the sitting mayor. Duplessis denied the allegations aired at the inquiry – but remained mum on specifics.
Government trusteeship of Laval would require an order from the Quebec cabinet. At the moment, three municipalities are under trusteeship in the province but none is nearly as big as Laval, the sprawling suburb across the river north of Montreal.
Trusteeship would mean:
-The province’s municipal commission would exercise supervisory powers over local decisions.
-No decision of the municipal council wound enter into force until the commission approves the minutes of the meeting at which it was taken.
-The municipal budget would require the approval of the commission to enter into force.
With pressure mounting on Duplessis to make a public statement, he had cancelled an online Facebook chat scheduled for Friday. The city had put out a statement only to say that it is co-operating with a police investigation.
But that did little to quell the furor.
In Quebec City, the province’s Municipal Affairs Minister Sylvain Gaudreault had been calling on Duplessis to explain himself to citizens. He had also suggested the city could be placed under trusteeship.
The opposition Coaltion party and Quebec solidaire parties were both calling for trusteeship. An auditor had previosuly been appointed to examine contracts awarded in Laval.
“Every day brings a new horror story about the administration of the City of Laval,” Coalition Leader Francois Legault said in a statement.
“With what we have learned recently forces the government to take exceptional measures to respond to an intolerable situation for the citizens of the third largest city in Quebec.”
Meanwhile, the official Opposition Liberals in Quebec City suggested a further investigation was needed.
Duplessis had remained silent for an entire day after the allegations were made Thursday by Jean Bertrand, a lawyer who served as official party agent for the former ruling party.
Bertrand told the inquiry that, over a 15-year period, almost every councillor accepted cash from engineering firms, who paid the party through a notary.
The councillors were tasked with finding strawmen within their families to write cheques to donate to the party. They were made aware the practice was illegal, Bertrand testified.
In Quebec, political donations from corporate entities are illegal.
Bertrand is among more than three dozen people facing criminal charges, including long-time mayor and political stalwart Vaillancourt.
Vaillancourt was formally charged with a dozen corruption-related charges, including two counts of gangsterism. The ex-mayor has said he will fight to restore his reputation.
He ruled over Laval for some 23 years and earned himself the nickname the “Monarch of Laval.” Duplessis, a councillor under Vaillancourt, was selected as mayor by fellow councillors last November.
Quebec’s corruption inquiry resumes sitting on June 10 after a one-week break.
-With files from Sidhartha Banerjee and Alexander Panetta in Montreal, and Martin Ouellet in Quebec City
© 2013 The Canadian Press