MONTREAL - Police arrested nine people in a massive anti-corruption sweep that nabbed several former key members of Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay's inner circle.
With Thursday's dragnet, the corruption scandals that have rocked Quebec over the last four years have returned home to where they started: Montreal's city hall.
It was there that initial news reports about conflicts of interest sprouted, before eventually growing into province-wide scandals that triggered a public inquiry set to begin next week.
Now the mayor's former No. 2, Frank Zampino, faces criminal charges. So does his ex-chief of staff, Martial Fillion. Ditto 74-year-old Bernard Trepanier, a key former fundraiser for the mayor's political party.
The three were picked up Thursday in connection with an alleged fraud scheme related to a public contract worth more than $300 million.
Even the mayor was among the 120 people questioned by police, over the course of a three-year investigation prompted by a tip. Police wouldn't say how many times they had spoken to Tremblay.
The mayor admitted to being shaken by the developments.
"These are serious arrests and I hope light will be shed on this as quickly as possible," Tremblay said.
"There's no doubt that this affects the credibility of elected officials and, in this case, most acutely of municipal officials."
The raft of arrests is among the biggest against alleged corruption in a province that has been awash in scandals for several years.
The suspected scheme was relatively simple: municipal officials were accused of slipping privileged information, like technical specifications, to a construction company that was involved in a competition for a public contract.
Those accused of providing the details were well rewarded, according to police: "We're talking about monetary advantages and gifts," said provincial police Insp. Denis Morin.
Charges to the group will include fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust.
Wearing a hoodie and sunglasses, Zampino was hauled out of his house in handcuffs and taken into custody Thursday morning. He was questioned for hours.
"For us, he was the brains of the operation," Morin told a packed news conference.
Prominent construction magnate Paolo Catania was detained at Montreal's Trudeau airport. He was apparently heading away on a trip.
"Mr. Catania was supposed to leave the country and he was stopped at the airport," Morin said. He would not reveal the entrepreneur's intended destination.
The province's police anti-corruption unit had its first major bust last month, arresting 14 people including construction bigwig Tony Accurso. It also detained politically connected players in an alleged scheme involving kickbacks and bribes in exchange for advantages in the awarding of public-works contracts.
One provincial politician who had been vocal in demanding a public inquiry expressed satisfaction. He told reporters in Quebec City that the people being arrested were no longer minnows — but "big fish" in the political world.
Zampino, 53, had vacationed on Accurso's yacht before and after one of Accurso's companies was awarded a historically lucrative contract to install water meters as part of a consortium.
After leaving municipal politics, Zampino had gone on to work at another engineering firm that was also part of the consortium, and quit when the yacht stories came out. He maintained he had never intervened on behalf of any company.
Zampino, who was Tremblay's right-hand man, was the chair of the city's executive committee — essentially the head of the municipal equivalent of a cabinet.
"We've said it before and will say it again: nobody is above the law," said Francois Roux, a director with the provincial police.
The others charged were: Martin D'Aoust, 37; Pasquale Fedele, 48; Andre Fortin, 47; Daniel Gauthier, 54; and Pascal Patrice, 43. Construction company Frank Catania et Associes Inc., was also charged with fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust.
Thursday's accusations centred on the awarding of a contract for a gigantic condo project, the 1,800-unit Faubourg Contrecoeur.
Fillion, once the mayor's chief of staff, was actually the head of the municipal agency that oversaw municipal real estate at the time the alleged crimes took place.