It seemed for a while that Montreal was enjoying a respite from municipal financial scandals. Alexandre Duplessis, interim mayor of the Montreal suburb of Laval, announced last Friday morning he was not resigning despite the extortion threats of a prostitute. Things evolved quickly. After the madam published the emails in which he hired the prostitute, including the detail that he intended to wear women's underwear, he resigned Friday afternoon. After the long series of bribery scandals, it seemed Montreal at last had a classic sex scandal.
On closer examination, however, it turned out to be the money all over again. Mr. Duplessis had hired the prostitute to engage in dress-up and role-playing games at his country home in the Laurentians. He suspected she had recognized him despite his costume and disguise -- so the madam told reporters -- and kicked her out without paying her. She demanded payment, he accused her of extortion, the madam pressed the claim for payment and the police were stuck with sorting the matter out. The Laval council, most of whose members stand accused of participation in illegal political-party financing, resolved to choose a new interim mayor.
Mr. Duplessis was appointed as interim mayor of Laval last November when the Quebec municipal corruption inquiry heard that Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt had been collecting a 2.5 per cent kickback on all Laval public-works contracts. Mr. Vaillancourt resigned. Mayors and interim mayors of Laval are more honorific than powerful currently because the city is under provincial trusteeship.
The revolving door at the Laval mayor's office spins at roughly the same speed as the one at Montreal city hall. Gerald Tremblay resigned as mayor of Montreal last November after the corruption inquiry heard testimony about pervasive and persistent bribery in city contracting. Michael Applebaum, appointed by the council to clean up contracting practices, resigned June 18 after the police raided his office and then charged him with taking bribes in his former capacity as mayor of the Notre-Dame-de-Gr¢ce district. Montreal councillors last week appointed Laurent Blanchard to fill the post until the November election.
Montreal civic administration has been in turmoil for the last dozen years. The Parti Quebecois government of Lucien Bouchard merged all the municipalities of Montreal into one city in order to abolish the distinct English-speaking municipal enclaves. In the event of Quebec separation, those enclaves might have a plausible claim to separate from Quebec. English-speaking suburbanites vociferously resisted amalgamation. The Quebec Liberals, who took power in 2003, invited the former suburbs to separate from Montreal, and 15 of them did so in 2006. The constant reorganization blurred the lines of authority in municipal government and weakened the defences against corruption.
The provincial cartel of construction companies, meanwhile, was growing stronger than ever. Quebec law obliges all the construction employers to operate as a cartel in negotiation with a cartel of construction unions. The close co-operation of employers in labour relations contributed to similar co-operation in bid-rigging and corruption of public officials.
A kickback culture had spread through the Quebec construction industry. The McGill University Health Centre is at the centre of a kickback scandal involving international construction giant SNC Lavalin. SNC is accused of paying kickbacks in gratitude for winning the contract to build the English-language mega hospital. Arthur C. Porter, the hospital executive director, who is accused of receiving the bribes, is fighting extradition from Panama.
None of this accounts for Mr. Duplessis' payment dispute with the prostitute but it does cast light on the pervasive corruption the Charbonneau inquiry and the police anti-corruption squad found in municipal public works. The Quebec public is clearly disgusted with the conduct of their public officials. But the Quebec authorities have created an environment in which corruption flourishes like weeds.