Montreal mayor who promised to erase stain of corruption was on the take himself, trial hears

MONTREAL – In November 2012, Michael Applebaum was poised to make history as Montreal’s first Jewish mayor and its first anglophone mayor in over a century.

But his and former chief of staff, Hugo Tremblay, had his doubts about campaign to become the squeaky-clean mayor who would “erase the stain” of tarnishing Montreal.

“I tried to convince him (not to run),” Tremblay told a court Monday. “The way he was going about it would just multiply the number of enemies we would have, and I knew there were skeletons in the closet.”

Applebaum ignored the advice, and seven months later the closet door would be burst open when anti-corruption police arrested him at home. On Monday, the friend turned informant was the first Crown witness at Applebaum’s trial on 14 charges of fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy.

Tremblay that Applebaum had barely warmed the mayor’s seat when the first sign of trouble emerged. In late November 2012, Tremblay was shaken when he called in for a meeting with investigators for the Charbonneau public inquiry into corruption, who pressured him to reveal what he knew about alleged bribes paid to Applebaum.

Tremblay divulged nothing and informed Applebaum of the meeting. He said Applebaum seemed unconcerned and told him not to lose sleep over it.

The following March, two police officers knocked on his door and said they wanted to talk to him about Applebaum. This time, Tremblay cracked. “I didn’t know how I would be able to hold up any longer,” he testified.

Applebaum was mayor of Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough when he hired Tremblay as a political aide in 2006. Tremblay was soon promoted to chief of staff, and he said that his steep learning curve included an “initiation to corruption” from Applebaum less than a year into the job.

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He was initially surprised when Applebaum confided that he was “no angel” and suggested asking two developers to make “an extra effort” in exchange for of their real estate project, he testified.

“He said, ‘We’ve got to make a living.’ I concluded from that that Michael had a kind of openness to corruption,” Tremblay said.

He said Applebaum instructed him in 2007 to contact the developers, assuring him they would know what he meant when he asked them to make an extra “political” effort.

The trial before Quebec Court Judge Louise Provost heard that Tremblay met with one of the developers, Anthony Keeler, and wrote the figure $35,000 on a piece of paper

It’s going to work. We’re going to have a nice

Tremblay said Keeler looked at the paper and said that it was a steep price and he would need to check with investors in New York. Later, Keeler called him to say, “It’s going to work. We’re going to have a nice Christmas.”

They arranged that the kickbacks would be paid in three installments corresponding to phases of approval of the project, Tremblay told the court.

The first payment came in December 2007 at a cafe meeting during which Keeler gave a Christmas parcel containing a video game case. Tremblay said he opened the case at home to find $8,000 cash.

He said his arrangement with Applebaum was that he would keep one-third and Applebaum would take the remaining two-thirds. He said he would tell Applebaum they should go for a drive, and Applebaum would take his share of the cash from the glove compartment.

A similar pattern was followed for all three , , but in the end the totalled $30,000 instead of the $35,000 agreed upon. He said Applebaum was angry and told him to collect the balance, but Keeler told him they had run out of cash.

“I was uncomfortable with it, but he was asking me to do it,” Tremblay testified of the kickbacks. “My boss is asking me to do this. I have to do it.”

Applebaum, 53, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which relate to the residence project and a to manage a new borough sports centre. Tremblay testified that in 2010 he and Applebaum split $25,000 in cash paid by the firm that won the sports-centre .

A real estate agent, Applebaum served as chairman of the executive committee under former Gérald Tremblay and was named interim mayor in 2012 when Tremblay resigned over corruption allegations against his administration.

“I solemnly vow that I will erase this stain on our city,” Applebaum said as he was sworn in. Instead, he wound up with a deep stain on his reputation. The trial will determine whether it can be erased.

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