MONTREAL—Hockey’s most storied franchise has had a regular shift at Quebec’s corruption inquiry. The probe has repeatedly heard how Montreal Canadiens tickets were a currency of choice when it came to corrupting public officials.
A half-dozen employees from the city’s engineering department have testified and every single one of them has admitted to taking free hockey tickets whenever they could get them. They were wined, dined and bribed by construction bosses. Some took gifts ranging from golf vacations to free home renovations. Some accepted money, some said they refused it. One witness said he drew the line at prostitutes and declined to accept the paid company of young women.
But nobody said no to Habs games—the hottest ticket in a hockey-mad town. In exchange, they did a few favours for construction bosses.
Some allegedly doctored work plans, approved false expenses, or shared inside information that ensured certain companies won bids and subsequently inflated the price of a project. Their work helped businessmen set up a construction cartel in the city, in which a small cabal rigged bids and overcharged for public works. Under that system, illicit profits were divvied up between companies, municipal officials, political parties, and the Italian Mafia.
In at least one case, the hockey tickets appeared to have been as coveted as a bribe. During recent testimony at the inquiry, engineering firm boss Michel Lalonde said he bought season tickets worth $14,015 for a civil servant in one borough. He said the official demanded those tickets, for the 2007-08 season, on top of a three percent cut on contracts that had been previously paid out.
“The demand (for tickets) was high in those days—probably because the Canadiens were winning more often,” Lalonde testified. That year, the Canadiens finished first in the Eastern Conference. Lalonde said the tickets were passed off as a business expense. Each of the City of Montreal public-works bureaucrats to testify has admitted to taking hockey tickets. One described it as standard procedure.
“It was common practice in the city. It was part of a business model,” Gilles Vezina, a now-suspended engineering department employee, testified. He noted, however, that free Habs tickets weren’t exactly on the official list of job conditions: “It wasn’t the mayor that told us to go to hockey games.”
He is currently suspended without pay, and is retiring at the end of the month. Last week, construction boss Joe Borsellino said he also plied a powerful union boss with expensive hockey tickets in addition to lavish gifts like a trip to Italy.
The alleged recipient of those gifts was the former head of the Quebec Federation of Labour’s construction wing, Jocelyn Dupuis, whom Borsellino called a friend. He said he gave other people tickets as well.
Borsellino’s company, Garnier Construction, was involved in the building of several community ice rinks with the Montreal Canadiens children’s foundation. But Borsellino couldn’t be there last week, for the official opening of the latest rink. He was busy testifying at the inquiry.