A bag containing $123,000 returned by Gilles Surprenant at the Charbonneau Commission is shown in a handout photo, released on Thursday October 18, 2012.
Gazette journalists share their memories of 2012.
MONTREAL - It was the sudden scraping of a dozen chairs across the floor that made me lift my head.
Normally, I would hardly ever look up at the high-definition TV screen mounted at the front of the media room at the Charbonneau Commission inquiry. What matters is what the witness says, after all, and aside from a few glances to gauge the person’s emotional state, I never saw the benefit of staring at the TV as I took notes.
On that particular morning in October, retired city engineer Gilles Surprenant was regaling the commission with the tale of how he collected, during the course of two decades or so, more than $700,000 in illegal cash kickbacks from construction bosses. He felt bad about it, he said; so bad that he even tried to return it to the public coffers (his words, not mine) by gambling away tens of thousands of dollars at the casino.
He still had $122,800 left, he said. He had handed it over to the commission. He was glad to be rid of it.
And that’s when the chorus of chair-scrapes rang out. Everyone, seemingly simultaneously, realized what was about to happen. We were going to see that $122,800. They were going to haul it out in a plastic bag and plunk it down in front of Surprenant — live on television.
Taking photographs is strictly forbidden in the hearing room itself (located right next door), but we could snap that TV screen to our hearts’ content. There was a mad scramble as the reporters who regularly cover the commission lunged for their cellphones and began jockeying for a spot near the front of the room. Shorter people in front, taller people in the back. No pushing, please.
When the cash landed with a thud on the table, there was a brief pause as everyone absorbed the bizarre tableau. The bright red tape on the plastic Ziplock bag. The look of shame on Surprenant’s face. The official looming over him, waiting to take the evidence away.
“Is this actually happening?”I asked no one in particular.
For me, this was the defining moment of the fall session at the inquiry. It was a concrete, physical illustration of the corruption we were hearing about day after day. It was the first of many images involving wads of cash that we would be treated to during the next two months. It was the beginning of the eventual end for Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay, who could no longer avoid responsibility for the theft that went on under his nose.
In an instant, the moment was over, and we all scampered back to our desks, precious pictures in hand.
But there had been a shift. This commission meant business.
Personally, I’ll never look at a Ziplock bag the same way again.
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