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Ex-Laval mayor back in court, faces preliminary hearing next summer

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Ex-Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt and 35 others arrested in a UPAC sweep in the spring were in court this morning and will return next summer for a preliminary hearing on charges of gangsterism, fraud, municipal corruption and conspiracy.

Only Vaillancourt and two others, his former director of engineering, Claude Deguise, and his former city manager, Claude Asselin, are charged with gangsterism.

But when asked by the judge if any others would face the same charge, the crown said they're not ruling it out.

The former mayor appeared at ease and was often seen smiling in the courtroom and in the corridors at the Laval courthouse. He was seen shaking hands and greeting one of the co-accused, construction magnate Tony Accurso in the hallway before entering the courtroom.

All 36 are free on bail and sat elbow to elbow in the public gallery of a specialized, high-security courtroom during the hearing. No one entered a plea. It took about five minutes for the roll call alone of all the accused with their lawyers identifying themselves.

Judge Gilles Garneau put everyone on notice that he would not tolerate delays: he started off his statement by saying that the city of Laval was under trusteeship and the trial will proceed as quickly and efficiently as possible. Garneau cited a Supreme Court ruling saying that the justice system must strive to find ways to reduce the costs, delays and stress related to complex court cases. He even warned the accused that if they decide to switch lawyers, their replacement better be up to speed so as not to incur any additional delays.

Garneau ordered the preliminary hearing be held between the end of June and the end of August of next year. Garneau refused to budge on the date even when defence lawyers raised objections, saying they hadn't seen all the evidence, had other cases and tight schedules, and that it was smack in the middle of summer vacation. Garneau said he was convinced that they could arrive at a consensus and that they can rearrange their workload.

In a rare move, the judge told lawyers to meet behind closed doors to discuss dates and preliminary schedules.

The crown announced that it's handed over about 90% of the evidence so far to the defence, including 22 DVDs. The defence said it just received nine of them this morning.

A date was set for December for a first pre-trial preparatory conference. The accused are not required to be there.

"They will discuss if there's a possibility of admissions, to make sure the preliminary inquiry will go (quickly) and that everyone is on the same page with all the information," crown spokesman Jean-Pascal Boucher told reporters.

Defence lawyers and their clients left the courthouse in a hurry, refusing to comment.