Development projects at centre of charges against Montreal mayor
Development projects at centre of charges against Montreal mayor
MONTREAL — For years, residents and some elected officials in Montreal’s Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace borough have charged there were irregularities with local real-estate projects and zoning requests. But nothing came of it.
Now, two unidentified development projects in the borough have brought 23 charges of fraud, breach of trust, conspiracy and corruption against Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum, former city councillor Saulie Zajdel and former borough permits director Jean-Yves Bisson.
The provincial government will not strip Montreal’s city council of its administrative duties, however, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said Monday, hours after Applebaum’s arrest.
The charges, 14 of which are levelled against Applebaum, who was mayor of the borough from 2002 to 2012, relate to what officials with Quebec’s anti-corruption squad called “tens of thousands of dollars” in bribes in exchange for municipal support and approval for the two real-estate projects between 2006 and 2011.
While the squad refused to identify the projects Monday, arguing that it can’t before disclosing its evidence to the lawyers of those accused, there are a few developments in the borough in that time frame that may be the subject of charges.
Among them are the borough’s new $15-million sports complex, built with provincial and municipal subsidies and inaugurated by Applebaum in January 2011 after a controversial zoning change and demolition of an existing pool in 2009.
The Notre-Dame-de-Grace Sports Centre is managed by borough officials and the company Sogep, a subsidiary of Dessau Inc. Two former Sogep and Dessau officials, Rosaire Sauriol and Patrice Laporte, are named in the warrants against Applebaum for acts allegedly committed relating to bribes between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2011. The pair and two other people named in the same warrants — former Laval city manager Claude Asselin, who went to work for Dessau, and Applebaum’s former chief of staff, Hugo Tremblay — are not charged with any crime.
Sauriol and Laporte stepped down from Sogep in March and April of this year, respectively.
Also among the developments during the time period are two private projects that were probed in media reports in recent months. One was a parcel of land at the corner of Cote-St-Luc Road and Decarie Boulevard, where a 12-storey seniors’ condo residence was eventually built after a series of real-estate transactions on the undeveloped land. The second was a failed 2005 bid to rezone for a pharmacy and a controversial housing project on Upper Lachine Road, where borough officials repeatedly intervened to obtain subsidies and regulatory approval and where Nick Rizzuto, the son of reputed Montreal Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto, was gunned down in 2009.
Developer Antonio Magi co-owned a company that initiated the Upper Lachine project, where his company bought the property from businessman Lee Lalli, a fundraiser at the time for Applebaum and former C.D.N.-N.D.G. city councillor Marcel Tremblay, brother of former mayor Gerald Tremblay.
Radio-Canada reported this year that Magi wanted to partner with Lalli on the Cote St-Luc/Decarie property, which Lalli owned and tried to develop into a pharmacy until residents shot down the project in a public register. Lalli confirmed to the Montreal Gazette that Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto asked to meet with him in 2003 and tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to partner with Magi on the land. Lalli said Magi had also been interested in buying the site and had made an offer on it before Lalli.
The borough was also in the throes of planning a major redevelopment of a low-income and partially disaffected area known as the Triangle east of Decarie Boulevard during the time period cited by authorities. The neighbourhood-wide redevelopment is expected to spur the construction of 4,200 housing units by various developers, some of whom have begun construction.
Two people named in the warrants against Applebaum for criminal acts allegedly committed between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2010, are businessmen Robert Stein and Anthony Peeler, though they are not charged with a crime. They are also named in the warrants against Bisson for acts allegedly committed between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2008. Stein is also named in the warrants against Zajdel for acts allegedly committed between Jan. 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2008, but not charged himself.
Stein co-owned some now-defunct numbered companies that were headquartered in a Magi-owned office building across the street from where the housing development went up. More than a decade ago, Stein was partnered with Magi’s brother, Ricardo, through numbered companies in a holding company where Antonio Magi’s wife, Rita Biasini, was vice-president and he was president, Quebec business records show.
Besides being borough mayor and a city councillor with Gerald Tremblay’s Union Montreal party, Applebaum was until the fall of 2009 a real-estate agent as well as head of the borough’s urban-planning committee.
The committee meets in private to study zoning requests and make recommendations to the borough council about whether to accept or refuse the requests.
The fact that Applebaum wore the various hats at the same time was criticized by residents and by councillors Warren Allmand and Francine Senecal at public borough council meetings over the years.
Applebaum said in January he wasn’t the target of an investigation when he met with investigators from the Charbonneau Commission, which is examining corruption in Quebec’s construction industry. He maintained he wasn’t being investigated when he was interrogated by the anti-corruption unit for hours during a series of raids by the anti-corruption squad on Montreal city hall and six borough halls on Feb. 19.
It may be that Applebaum was right when he said he wasn’t the object of an investigation at the time.
Anti-corruption unit chief Robert Lafreniere and Andre Boulanger, a captain with the Quebec provincial police, said the investigation that resulted in Monday’s arrests only began in March based on “sold information” received that month.
In fact, the Quebec government only created UPAC, its anti-corruption unit, in 2011 under public pressure and mounting allegations about corruption in the province’s construction industry and the awarding of public contracts.
“UPAC, its anti-corruption unit, has a mandate to protect the public system and Quebec economy,” Lafreniere said at a news conference with Boulanger at SQ. headquarters in Montreal on Monday. “We can no longer tolerate these reprehensible acts committed towards the management of our public institutions.”
Boulanger and Lafreniere said the police investigation is ongoing. More arrests are possible, Boulanger added.
Elected as interim mayor following Tremblay’s resignation in November, Applebaum has tried to present the image of a Mr. Clean who wants to put the city’s affairs in order. He maintained in March that he intends to complete the term as mayor of Montreal and then run for his old borough mayor seat in Cote des Neiges-NDG in the Nov. 3 municipal election.
“I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have nothing to hide,” Applebaum said in March after the media exposed questions and irregularities in the real-estate projects on Upper Lachine and at Cote St. Luc/Decarie.
“I’m the mayor of Montreal. I’m the flavour of the year.”