November 25, 2008. Light rain drizzled over the city as Marie-Maude Denis walked along Amherst Street from CBC/Radio-Canada’s offices in southeast Montreal. She had a 10 a.m. meeting with a source at Pouding Café, a neighbourhood coffee shop. Her boss, Pierre Tourangeau, had suggested she talk to this contact, someone he relied on during the Gomery Commission’s investigation into the federal sponsorship scandal in 2005.

Denis was an ambitious television crime reporter, a go-getter with a strong work ethic that impressed her superiors at Radio-Canada. A few days before this meeting, the then-27-year-old had received a brown envelope from a confidential law enforcement source. The tip mapped out long-standing collusion linking construction entrepreneurs and union bosses to high-profile municipal and provincial politicians throughout Quebec, prompting her to meet with this new source at the café. The evidence focused primarily on Laval, a city north of Montreal.

At the time, Denis knew little about the Quebec construction industry, or the cast of characters her source was rambling on about at the coffee shop. But she learned a lot as he shared his intimate knowledge of the systemic corruption that had gripped much of Quebec for the previous decade. The people involved included Tony Accurso, one of the city’s most prominent construction entrepreneurs.

Back at her newsroom cubicle, Denis asked her colleague, Christian Latreille, for advice on how to handle the information. Latreille recommended she share it with Radio-Canada’s newly revamped investigative unit. He urged Denis to contact Monique Dumont, a senior researcher known for her interest in the Laval corruption dossier. Denis walked down to Radio-Canada’s current affairs department on the building’s ground level. She knocked on Dumont’s door and introduced herself. They walked over to a glass-enclosed conference room, where Denis watched as Dumont’s eyes widened; then she began running around the office, screaming, “I’ve got my smoking gun! I’ve got my smoking gun!”

 ***

Before Charbonneau

 

Here’s how Montreal investigative journalists broke the stories that led to the Charbonneau Commission:

December 13, 2007: Le Devoir’s Kathleen Lévesque reports on conflicts of interest in Montreal’s water meter contract.

November 29, 2008: La Presse reporter André Noël’s story on the Faubourg Contrecoeur deal reveals illegal privatization of city land.

March 5, 2009: Radio-Canada’s Enquête airs an episode on the FTQ construction union and the construction industry.

March 13, 2009: La Presse columnist Yves Boisvert reveals that executive committee president Frank Zampino vacationed on a boat owned by prominent construction entrepreneur Tony Accurso.

April 14, 2009: Lévesque uncovers private sector control of the city’s public works contracts.

August 20, 2009: The Gazette’s Linda Gyulai’s exposes the city’s corrupt water meter contract.

October 12, 2009: RueFrontenac.com’s Fabrice De Pierrebourg reveals ties between municipal politician Benoît Labonté and Accurso.

October 15, 2009: Enquête airs “The Fabulous Fourteen,” its second investigation into corruption in the construction industry.

October 17, 2009: Labonté does a sit-down interview with Radio-Canada’s Marie-Maude Denis after resigning from his position at Vision Montreal.

February 19, 2011: Premier Jean Charest creates anti-corruption unit. Dozens of arrests follow in the next two years.

October 19, 2011: Charest announces the Charbonneau Commission. It runs from May 2012 to November 2014.

Since Denis took that smoking gun to her colleagues at Enquête in 2008, Montreal reporters have successfully exposed deep-rooted corruption, in what has been hailed as a golden moment for Canadian journalism. By 2009, the investigations began to snowball and over the many years it took to reveal the whole stunning story, several Montreal journalists became involved—including Denis and Alain Gravel at Radio-Canada, André Noël and André Cédilot at La Presse, Kathleen Lévesque at Le Devoir, Linda Gyulai at The Gazette and Fabrice De Pierrebourg at RueFrontenac.com, the news site launched by locked-out Le Journal de Montréal employees in 2009. They were competitive, but they built on each other’s stories. Although many received defamation suits from people they were investigating, they persevered.

“We’ve been part of the solution regarding the fight against corruption and crime,” says Brian Myles, a reporter at Le Devoir and former vice-president of the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists. He and his colleagues have every right to be proud: their exemplary, old-fashioned reporting and the astonishing results—cemented by the creation of the Charbonneau Commission in 2012—reaffirmed that investigative journalism can lead to change. “The real work, and the part that people don’t realize,” says Les Perreaux, a Quebec correspondent for The Globe and Mail, “is the story that comes the day after the big scoop.”

The journalists had their work cut out for them. Corruption is not new to Quebec politics and public works contracts. Since 1925, there have been eight inquiries, including the 1973 commission on organized crime and the 1974 Cliche Commission that revealed intimidation practices within construction unions.

In 1977, then-Premier René Lévesque enacted a new law prohibiting companies and unions from donating to political parties and limiting individual donations. Thirty years later, though, construction and engineering firms had found ways around the rules. A well-oiled underground system with arm’s-length connections to the Mafia was involved in rigging contracts for public works and providing illegal political financing.

By 2008, the public realized something was not right. The city’s infrastructure was in a dire state, while Quebec remained the highest-taxed province in the country, with Montrealers paying 30 percent more for their public works contracts than anywhere else in Canada. It soon became clear that many of those in power had been abusing the system for years. In their arrogance and complacency, they weren’t expecting a group of astute journalists and an informed public to put them to shame.

At Radio-Canada’s Enquête, Gravel, a middle-aged television journalist with stern features, teamed up with Denis. The two became local celebrities as their show generated unprecedented audience interest. From 2009 to 2011, they produced bombshell investigations into corruption, primarily focusing on the construction industry’s ties to organized crime. Their work paved the way for other journalists to contribute to the sensational story. The picture was coming into focus and the public was outraged, as long-standing suspicions were confirmed by the meticulous reporting.

At La Presse, Noël, a seasoned investigative reporter, revealed the details of the Faubourg Contrecoeur real estate deal between the City of Montreal and Frank Catania Construction & Associates. The housing and development department allegedly sold the land to construction entrepreneur Paolo Catania for well below the estimated $31-million market value. The secret deal had been orchestrated before the call for tendering on the project. Those accused of being involved included Frank Zampino, then-chair of the city’s executive committee; Bernard Trépanier, a Union Montreal party fundraiser; Martial Fillion, the director of housing and development; and Catania.

In 2012, Noël left La Presse to work for the Charbonneau Commission. (He declined to be interviewed for this article because it would be a conflict of interest.) For much of his career, he and Cédilot were the only investigative reporters at La Presse. Small-statured with a trim moustache, Cédilot mastered the organized crime beat. The two collaborated on the tell-all book Mafia Inc., first published in 2010, which explored the intricacies of Montreal’s Sicilian mob.

Meanwhile, at the independent daily Le Devoir, Lévesque, a reporter with piercing eyes and youthful energy, investigated engineering firms. She detailed their close ties to illegal political fundraising operations and alleged that bids for city contracts were rigged. Her diligent reporting over the years helped force the province’s auditor general to become involved, and he eventually proposed the creation of the public inquiry.

At The Gazette, Montreal’s only English-language daily, civic affairs reporter Linda Gyulai also contributed to the unfolding story. She’s the kind of journalist people don’t see coming even though she’s always three steps ahead of them, says her colleague Monique Muise, who covered the Charbonneau Commission for The Gazette. With two decades of municipal reporting experience, Gyulai’s analytical skills and expert knowledge of city hall helped her reveal a correlation between city contract allocations and political party donations.

Big news organizations weren’t the only ones working the story. The now-defunct website RueFrontenac.com also covered it. Rugged-looking French-born Fabrice De Pierrebourg broke a shocking story linking the construction industry to municipal party donations in the lead-up to the Montreal municipal elections in 2009.

Together, the reporting fuelled public discontent, leaving politicians no choice but to create the Charbonneau Commission to examine Quebec’s construction industry and its connections to organized crime. As Gravel says, “Sometimes you need a perfect storm in order for everything to explode.”

 ***

The timing was right for a big story at Radio-Canada. When Alain Saulnier became senior director of information in 2006, he had two goals: increase international coverage and produce more investigative reports. He helped kick-start the return of hard-hitting journalism in Quebec. Meanwhile, the network’s public affairs program Enjeux was going through an existential crisis. That same year, Jean Pelletier, Radio-Canada’s director of television information, came to Saulnier with an idea.

“Are you crazy!? You want us to produce a weekly investigative show?” exclaimed Gravel, then-host of Enjeux. “We are never going to be able to pull that off.” Although he had never been particularly fond of Enjeux’s soft human-interest stories, he remained uncertain about the feasibility of the idea and worried that sources would refuse to speak to them after they heard the premise of the new program.

Saulnier was immediately on board with the idea. His vision was to dismantle the traditional boundaries between the newsroom and current affairs. He wanted the six o’clock news to lead with breaking stories, while the weekly show Enquête would follow up with in-depth coverage. “I felt like we needed to prove that we were indispensible, and that the public could count on us for our professionalism and our thorough work ethic,” says Saulnier, now a journalism professor at the University of Montreal. “I knew it was a risk worth taking.”

Initially, Enquête struggled to produce investigations every week, but everything changed in late 2008. Soon after Denis’s scoop, Radio-Canada executives allocated time and resources that enabled the journalists to see their investigation to fruition. Denis created a makeshift desk in Gravel’s office, where she began pinning central figures and events onto a bulletin board. The duo chipped away at a list of possible sources, conducting numerous off-camera interviews. “This was a Cinderella story for me,” recalls Denis.

In conversations with sources, one name kept surfacing: Ken Pereira, director of the industrial mechanics branch of the Quebec Federation of Labour’s (FTQ) construction wing, the province’s largest union. Pereira noticed irregularities with executive director Jocelyn Dupuis’s expenses. It appeared that he and other union executives were indulging in first-class dinners at restaurants, receiving tickets to hockey games and more. Pereira had also discovered close ties between the FTQ and the Mafia.

In January 2009, Pereira arrived at Radio-Canada looking for Gravel. The whistleblower presented the Enquête team with a duffel bag full of Dupuis’s receipts. He produced hard evidence about the Mafia’s involvement with Quebec construction union officials and how they tampered with the Fonds de Solidarité, a multi-billion dollar pension fund in which half a million Quebeckers keep their life savings. “This is when I realized we had something solid here,” recalls Gravel. “This wasn’t bullshit.”

Enquête’s lawyers suggested the show package the expense scandal story and the report on the ties to the mob. On March 5, 2009, it aired its first episode on corruption. “What happened after that was very much like Watergate,” says Gravel. “We all understood that we would only be able to bring the big picture to light through smaller stories, piece by piece.” La Presse picked up on it the next day but added new details, proving that it had been working on the story as well. “As journalists, we don’t necessarily like being quoted or scooped by others,” says Gravel, “but in this case, it was a good thing.”

***

In the days following that first Enquête episode, Denis and Gravel searched for a new piece of the puzzle. It appeared that several high-profile public servants had taken all-expenses-paid holidays on The Touch, a yacht owned by construction magnate Tony Accurso. Through privileged information, they knew that Michel Arsenault, who was FTQ president and Dupuis’s boss, had vacationed on the boat. As a representative of the labour union, Arsenault shouldn’t have accepted this kind of gift.

“My boss told me we were going to do something we never do,” remembers Gravel. “We were going to sacrifice our scoop.” Pelletier instructed his team to scrum Arsenault, who happened to be in Quebec City at the time, and ask him straight out about the boat. To everyone’s surprise Arsenault confirmed everything. That evening, Céline Galipeau, host of Le Téléjournal, led the newscast with this latest scandal.

At the same time, Noël was investigating Accurso and his alleged ties to Montreal’s former executive-committee president Frank Zampino—the same Zampino involved in the Faubourg Contrecoeur scandal. He’d retired from municipal politics in July 2008 and was now working for the engineering firm Dessau-Soprin, which was part of the consortium that received Montreal’s largest contract for water meters. On March 13, 2009, La Presse’s headline shook things up yet again. La Presse’s judicial affairs columnist Yves Boisvert wrote “Copinage et Pantouflage” (“Cronyism and Revolving Doors”), exposing the friendships between civil servants and members of private enterprises. Boisvert summarized all of the suspicious behaviour that had emerged through other reporting. Buried at the end of the column, he made reference to Zampino vacationing on The Touch while the city was awarding the water meter contract—a contract Accurso’s construction firm won. “I felt like I needed to support the movement and follow up on my colleagues’ investigations,” explains Boisvert. “A column can accelerate a news story.”

Journalists had successfully uncovered ties between construction unions and the mob, as well as connections between municipal politicians and the construction industry. From then on, they continued to reveal information piece by piece. “In the industry,” laughs Gravel, “this is what we call a one-two-three punch.”

In the months that followed, this combination of competition and cooperation continued among the journalists. According to Gravel, Noël leaked information to him after La Presse hesitated to publish one of his stories, then went to his bosses to say that Gravel had scooped them—leverage to convince them to publish. When asked about it, Noël said, “I can’t confirm this.”

Meanwhile, at Radio-Canada, the journalists became a close-knit group as they enjoyed success after success. “I think that was our real strength at Enquête,” says Latreille, who worked with Denis and Gravel. “We lunched together, we had fun together—just like a hockey team.”

 ***

While the Montreal story was unfolding on TV and in the press, the journalists knew the problem was much larger in scope. The provincial transportation ministry was responsible for awarding public works contracts to engineering firms, which in turn put out a call for proposals to construction companies. Then the bidding would begin. At the time, the government was increasingly using private engineering firms instead of the Ministry of Transportation. This was also occurring at the municipal level. It appeared that engineering firms were communicating with the construction firms that were receiving the contract bids. This type of collusion is illegal, and Lévesque uncovered it early on. She also paid close attention to a similar trend: the engineering firms being invited to municipal political financing events were the same firms receiving city contracts. Her dedication and attention to detail resulted in several stories that revealed the larger corruption picture in Quebec.

But before that came part one of the water meter scandal. In 2007, Lévesque received a phone call from a source who had helped her in 1996, when she first wrote about water meter scandals. She remembers the conversation being brief, and her source telling her to look into the water meter contract—the city’s largest. Lévesque struggled to find out what had actually happened, but she was eventually able to put the pieces together. On December 13, 2007, under the headline “Conflict of Interests in Connection with a Contract for $355 million,” Lévesque revealed that BPR, the engineering firm the city had hired, was allegedly collaborating with engineering firm Dessau on several other projects. It was no coincidence that Dessau undertook the water meter contract. “Two years later, the scandal took on a new dimension and greater importance,” says Lévesque. “This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

 ***

By 2009, as The Gazette’s civic affairs reporter, Gyulai was investigating another angle to the water meter story. Since her time as a freelancer at the Montreal Mirror, a now-defunct weekly, she’d believed in old-school sleuthing in service of the public interest. “What I love about municipal reporting is that you ride this righteous horse waving your arm in the air.”

While Denis and Gravel reported on the construction industry and Lévesque investigated irregularities within engineering firms, Gyulai sifted through municipal archives. A source hinted that the eventual owners of the water meter system would be a private consortium called GÉNIeau, co-owned by Dessau and one of Accurso’s construction firms, Simard-Beaudry.

Gyulai discovered that the contract usually attached to the service file was missing. This piqued her interest. After all, the $355-million contract was the largest awarded in Montreal’s history. She was dumbfounded that city councillors didn’t have a copy of the contract to review before approving it. Through an access to information request, Gyulai received the documents from a 2007 council meeting. She discovered that the water meter contract passed in a group with other resolutions in 53 seconds without objections or debate.

“For people like Linda, it was really a lasting commitment that they were going to devote themselves, their talent and their energies, to these stories,” says Muise. The Gazette didn’t have the resources other news organizations had for these investigations, which is why it decided to focus its coverage on city hall.

Gyulai looked for patterns within the paperwork and then cross-referenced her data. After she received the tip on the water management contract, the newspaper granted her the summer of 2009 to advance her research. “You are on this track and you just keep following it. It’s about seeing a pattern and following it down whatever path,” she says. “You aren’t really driving the car. It’s kind of driving you.” In August of that year, Gyulai wrote a story with the headline, “City Deal Was Changed at the 11th Hour.”

Her extensive investigation revealed that changes to the contract removed the financial risk to the consortium. Not only would the city not own the water meters, but it would likely have to replace them 15 years down the line. Montreal Auditor General Jacques Bergeron then investigated the matter. “Everything he wrote and all of these findings supported everything I wrote that summer,” says Gyulai. On Bergeron’s recommendation, former mayor Gérald Tremblay announced the cancellation of the contract in September. “She is the reason we didn’t have a bogus $355-million water meter contract,” says Martin Patriquin, Quebec bureau chief for Maclean’s. Gyulai “saved us $355 million, and that alone is astonishing.”

As the only investigative reporter at Le Devoir, Lévesque couldn’t cover everything. After her research into the water meter scandal in 2007, she focused on the engineering firms. In 2009, she filed an access to information request with the City of Montreal after receiving a tip from an anonymous source. She filed another with the provincial ministry of transportation on the same issue of outsourcing contracts. What she discovered was just as astonishing as what she’d previously uncovered. Almost all of the city and province’s construction contracts were being outsourced to a small number of private firms. Whether in the public interest or not, it was certainly benefitting the small coterie of politicians, bureaucrats and construction executives who lined each other’s pockets with money they grabbed from the public purse. With every new revelation from the journalists, public outrage grew. Something had to be done.

Quebec’s Auditor General Renaud Lachance came to the same conclusion as Lévesque. He recommended the creation of an anti-corruption unit (UPAC) headed by Jacques Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief. In September 2011, Duchesneau leaked his own report to the Enquête team, later recommending to a parliamentary commission that, in light of his findings, the government launch a public inquiry. He was fired a month later for the leak. In 2013, UPAC raids led to the arrests of Zampino, Catania, former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, interim Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum and many others. Several engineering firms, including Dessau, were also raided.

Lévesque says the engineering firmsare at the centre of it all. They are the professionals making the plans and the decisions at the start of any contract.” She investigated donations to political parties and the bid-rigging system within a core group of nine engineering firms in Montreal—“the fabulous nine,” as they came to be known. “The last thing you should do as a journalist is work alone in your corner,” says Lévesque. Looking back now, she understands that by building on each other’s work, they were able to move forward.

 ***

Denis and Gravel continued their research during the summer of 2009, while other journalists, including Fabrice De Pierrebourg, sought to contribute to the ever-growing story. After the Journal de Montréal locked out its employees, the newsroom staff created the website RueFrontenac.com to host their reporting. These journalists were not paid, and the newsroom was a decrepit ballet studio across the street from the Journal’s office.

In August, De Pierrebourg’s phone rang and he recognized the number. “Are you ready to write this down?” asked a familiar voice. He grabbed his pen and notebook. The source went into great detail about a meeting that took place at a restaurant in Old Montreal in March 2008. Municipal politician Benoît Labonté had asked Accurso for money to help fund his campaign. Louise Harel, the leader of the opposition party Vision Montreal was running for mayor in the November 2009 elections, and Labonté was her right-hand man. Vision Montreal’s entire campaign was based on the idea of cleaning up city hall.

After weeks of research, De Pierrebourg managed to get three other sources to confirm the details. But Normand Tamaro, RueFrontenac.com’s lawyer, thought it would be best to release the story as part of a series over the course of three days. “I didn’t like this idea at all because as a journalist you are always afraid of being scooped,” says De Pierrebourg. But Tamaro’s “bear trap” strategy lured in readers and created shockwaves throughout the city. Labonté resigned from his position at Vision Montreal and Louise Harel subsequently lost the election to the incumbent Gérald Tremblay.

This was the first time an investigation proved direct ties between political financing and construction entrepreneurs. “I remember everyone jumped to write follow-up stories after that,” recalls Vincent Larouche, who contributed to RueFrontenac.com and is now at La Presse with De Pierrebourg. “We all had something to contribute.” After his resignation, Labonté chose to give his first sit-down interview to Denis. He was emotional and admitted to accepting cash from Accurso, stating that “prêtes-noms” (“straw men”) were commonly used to conceal illegal political donations from private companies.

 ***

Cédilot sits at the busy Première Moisson bakery in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, a neighbourhood west of Montreal’s downtown core. His grey moustache and vintage black-rimmed glasses make for a distinguished look. Now retired from La Presse, he spends most of his days commenting on radio or television about organized crime or the latest developments at the Charbonneau Commission.

Like his pal Noël, he has a different perspective on these events. Throughout the 1990s, he and Bruno Bisson published a series of investigations into corruption in Laval—a precursor to what would come in Montreal and other municipalities across Quebec. Yet the timing wasn’t right and the public didn’t take much notice. Having spent 20 years covering organized crime, Cédilot’s interest in Montreal’s mob family the Rizzutos runs deep—as Mafia Inc. showed. “When the book arrived, it was like the cherry on the sundae,” he admitted. “To say that the Mafia was involved in all of this—the pizzo!”

But Cédilot remains skeptical about what the commission report will accomplish, especially since the inquiry didn’t clearly identify the ties to organized crime and failed to look into Hydro-Québec—the government-owned corporation that deals with many of the same crooked players. Though journalists played an instrumental role in revealing the intricacies of the corrupt system, the commission didn’t hear testimony from high-profile provincial players such as Jean Charest and Pauline Marois. Andrew McIntosh, who leads Quebecor’s new investigative unit (which Cédilot sees as a competitive response to Enquête), also questions how far the commission went. “It’s like we’ve been at the buffet and they’ve been plucking at the juiciest cuts of meat, but they never drilled down.”

The commission proposed reforming the province’s Access to Information Act, but reporters also want better protection of whistleblowers and greater access to municipal documents. “The access to information law has become a way to block journalists,” says Pierre Tourangeau, now Radio-Canada’s ombudsman. “It’s time for governments to demonstrate more transparency.”

 ***

As this extraordinary period of investigative journalism comes to an end, no one doubts that more scandals will surface in the years to come. “Where there is money being exchanged, there will always be the potential for corruption,” says Alan Conter, a media consultant and journalism lecturer at Concordia University in Montreal. “And when this does happen,” he hopes “journalists will be there to uncover the facts yet again.”

In the meantime, the climate of journalistic collaboration has shifted back to one of competition, as more news outlets create or expand their investigative units. La Presse recruited Lévesque and De Pierrebourg. And while budget cuts at Radio-Canada may affect shows such as Enquête, in late September—six years after the initial scoop—it’s business as usual.

Gravel leans in toward his computer screen, mouthing the words as he reads his script. A copy of Mafia Inc. is open on his desk, and piles of documents are spread on the floor. Photos of his children are on the wall, and on the other side of the room are awards and newspaper clippings collected over the years. “I don’t have the status of Peter Mansbridge,” says Gravel as he points to the investigative unit. Empty desks and boxes line the pathway to his office.

Dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt under a blazer, he makes a few final changes to his script before picking up the phone to speak to one of the show’s lawyers. After Accurso unsuccessfully sued Radio-Canada three times, vetting scripts for a television show such as Enquête has become a tedious but necessary process. This is going to be a big “Accurso-Mafia” episode, Gravel says with a sense of vindication.

People used to congratulate him for his work, but now they thank him. “The Charbonneau Commission is the stamp of validation on everything we said,” he says, and while he believes reporters still have work to do, this whole chapter in Quebec’s history helped reaffirm journalism’s core values. His boss Pelletier agrees. “Journalism is by definition investigation. If it is something else, then I don’t want to practise it.”

Photo by Scott Adamson