LAVAL, Que. - A corruption-related storm ripped through the Montreal area Thursday, devastating once-sturdy political institutions inside and outside the city.
The party that won Montreal's last municipal election was dissolved. And in the big suburb next door, the mayor who dominated the last six elections was slapped with gangsterism charges.
It all occurred in just over an hour.
The succession of events underscored how the political order in Montreal has been overturned during a corruption inquiry, which is just now shifting its focus toward provincial politics.
The last-standing rump of the Union Montreal party, which has won every election in the newly merged post-2001 mega-city, announced it had given up trying to rehabilitate itself and would disband.
A few kilometres north in suburban Laval, Quebec's third-largest city, the ex-mayor was among 37 people facing a long list of charges.
For much of his political life, Gilles Vaillancourt was known as "The Monarch." For the rest of his natural life, however, he risks being branded as "The Godfather."
Vaillancourt, who once seemed unbeatable in the mayor's chair, now faces one of the Criminal Code's most serious charges: directing a criminal organization.
That count carries, in theory, a possible life sentence. It is the most severe of the dozen charges against Vaillancourt, two of which are gangsterism-related.
Vaillancourt's arrest Thursday made him the highest-profile politician arrested in the province's ongoing corruption probes.
He was freed on $150,000 bail without deposit, after appearing in court in handcuffs. Vaillancourt, 72, was ordered to re-appear July 10 and forced to submit to several bail conditions. He must surrender his passport.
It's the first time that charges of gangsterism, usually reserved for organized-crime groups, have been laid in connection with Quebec's ongoing political scandals.
"I will devote all the time that I have to prove my innocence — and I think I have very strong points to (make)," Vaillancourt said during a brief exchange with reporters as he left the courthouse.
"I have become a private person now and I would like you to respect my private life."
Vaillancourt was mayor of Laval, just across the river from Montreal, from 1989 until last November when he stepped down under a cloud of controversy.
His critics gave him the nickname "The Monarch" because of his unfettered electoral success over six terms. For years, his party held every single seat on the city council.
On Thursday, Vaillancourt and two former colleagues in Laval stood shoulder to shoulder in a courtroom prisoner's box as they listened to proceedings. He was joined by Claude Asselin, Laval's ex-city manager, and Claude Deguise, the city's former head of engineering.
Earlier Thursday, the head of Quebec's anti-corruption unit read out Vaillancourt's name among those who faced charges.
Robert Lafreniere said the busts followed a three-year investigation that included 150 witness interviews, 30,000 wiretapped conversations and the execution of 70 search warrants.
"The investigation targeted the dismantling of an organized and structured network operating a system of corruption and collusion in the provision of public contracts," Lafreniere told a news conference at provincial police headquarters in Montreal.
Lafreniere described the alleged criminal network as "well-established" and he said it included three distinct groups: entrepreneurs and engineers; facilitators, lawyers, notaries and a merchant; and a mayor, a city manager and a top municipal engineer.
The charges, he said, included fraud, fraud against the government, conspiracy, breach of trust, corruption in municipal affairs, laundering proceeds of crime, and gangsterism.
"These are extremely serious accusations," said Lafreniere, who added that 120 police officers were involved in Thursday's sweep.
"Today's operation is a testimony of the magnitude of the corruption phenomena we are facing."
Another person charged Thursday was former construction magnate Tony Accurso, whose name has been frequently mentioned at the Charbonneau Commission looking into corruption in the construction industry. He already faces charges in other cases.
Others charged include lawyers, former city officials, and construction executives.
Ironically, news of the charges surfaced as municipal leaders from across Quebec were gathered in Montreal for the annual meeting of the province's federation of municipalities.
Vaillancourt's arrest quickly became the topic of conversation at the conference and stunned several attendees, including Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay.
He expressed hope that the arrests would lead to positive changes.
He also voiced his disbelief that corruption might have been going on at high levels, for so long, without police stepping in.
"When you're (a mayor) like me, making $135,000 a year plus an expense account, if you want to make more than that, do something else in life," said Tremblay, known for his colourful and sometimes controversial remarks.
"If you feel obliged to rob your citizens on top of that, to do your work, it's serious."
Premier Pauline Marois, also in attendance at the federation's meeting, was more cautious with her words. She said Quebecers must allow justice to run its course.
"We have a justice system and I'm confident that these actions will take us closer to restoring integrity in our institutions," Marois said.
Vaillancourt stepped down last fall after he was hit with scathing testimony during the ongoing Charbonneau inquiry.
A witness accused him of pocketing kickbacks from construction bosses — something Vaillancourt denied.
At the time, the province's anti-corruption unit had also raided two of Vaillancourt's personal residences, along with his office. Investigators reportedly sifted through bank safety-deposit boxes looking for large amounts of cash.
Several hours after the bank raids, Vaillancourt announced he would step away from his mayoral duties citing health reasons. He said he would reflect on his political future.
A few weeks later, he called it quits for good.
In a solemn resignation announcement, Vaillancourt lamented the climate of suspicion in Quebec.
For years, he had loudly protested his innocence and threatened to sue those who accused him of corruption.
But that fire had become a flicker by the time he stepped down. He simply suggested that he had been hard done by.
"We are going through a very difficult, very painful moment as a society," Vaillancourt told reporters in November, just days after Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay resigned amid his own swirls of corruption allegations.
"All elected people, at all levels, are accused of all sorts of wrongdoing. We're hearing all sorts of things, we're facing allegations that without being proven can irreversibly change someone's reputation... I am one of these people, and I'm deeply hurt."
He suggested quitting was his only option: "Whatever I say or do... the damage (to my reputation) is done."
During his succinct farewell address, the mayor touted his record in overseeing the development of a once-sleepy farming community into a bustling and fast-growing municipality.
Laval had become home to more than 400,000 people — more populous than Halifax — by 2011, according to Statistics Canada.
Vaillancourt said he had always worked for Laval residents. He thanked journalists for their coverage during his career, then turned around and walked away without taking any questions.
- with files from Lia Levesque in Montreal
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