Quebec’s ever-expanding corruption scandal has touched the highest ranks of Montreal city hall with a stunning new allegation that millions of dollars in bribes went to the city’s executive committee, which includes the mayor.
Gilles Surprenant, the corrupt former city engineer who says he took $600,000 from construction firms to inflate contracts, testified Monday that a 3-per-cent cash kickback on many projects went to the executive team, consisting of the mayor and select city councillors who had final approval.
Mr. Surprenant said he was told of the payments in 2005 by Luc Leclerc, a former engineer who the commission has heard was also allegedly on the take.
Mr. Surprenant’s account of kickbacks to the executive committee has yet to be corroborated at the commission. Mr. Surprenant, who says he is on medication to calm his nerves, has had to fill in gaps in memory and revise several elements of his testimony, which he has delivered with evident nerves and hesitancy.
Former construction boss Lino Zambito previously said the kickback went to the mayor’s party, Union Montreal, not directly to city councillors. Mayor Gérald Tremblay denied the allegations in city council Monday and rejected opposition calls he resign.
The chair of the executive committee from 2001 to 2008 was Frank Zampino, a councillor facing charges of fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy. Police allege Mr. Zampino helped fix a land deal for Construction Frank Catania, a company frequently named as having paid bribes for inflated public-works contracts.
However high the money went, Mr. Surprenant said it was clear everyone in his chain of command was aware of what was going on and did nothing to stop it. Several engineers and managers decided to cash in, he said.
He described how the system of collusion and bribes really took off in 2000, when the city started paying vast inflation on projects, including double on many sidewalk and paving projects.
On the water and sewer side where he worked, Mr. Surprenant said he would simply invent explanatory notes and tell a list of about 10 contractors how high they could get away with bidding. By 2006, the city commissioned a study that showed it was paying 30– to 35-per-cent more for construction projects than Quebec City or Toronto, he said.
“I never saw any concrete gesture by anyone to find out why,” Mr. Surprenant said. “We assumed everyone knew. If a simple engineer like me knew, everyone knew.”
At least two men above him knew about the corruption and took their own cut, including Robert Marcil, the head of all city construction projects, Mr. Surprenant testified. Mr. Marcil, who could not be reached Monday, resigned in 2009 after it was revealed he had vacationed in Italy with Joseph Borselino, president of Garnier Construction.
Mr. Surprenant was nicknamed Mr. GST by construction bosses for the 1 per cent he was accused of collecting on contracts. He said he never collected a percentage and the amount was usually a few thousand dollars set by each company boss.
Mr. Surprenant described how he and at least a half dozen other officials were wined and dined by entrepreneurs and even Montreal mafia godfather Vito Rizzuto as the bribes started flowing.
The retired engineer says construction boss Tony Conte was treating him and fellow engineer Luc Leclerc to a golf vacation to the Dominican Republic around 2002 when Mr. Rizzuto showed up at the airport as a surprise guest.
Mr. Surprenant said close relations between city engineers, construction firms and, occasionally, mobsters, were cultivated through bottles of wine, golf outings, vacations and dinners.
During one round of golf around 1995, Mr. Surprenant described telling Paolo Catania, who went on to become head of Construction Frank Catania, that companies chronically underbid in the 1980s and early 1990s, which was leading to shoddy work and bankruptcies.
Last week, Mr. Surprenant described how it all started when in 1990 he was told by construction boss Frank Catania that he’d be “tossed aside” if he didn’t help. He collected his first bribe a short while later. On Monday, he revised Mr. Catania’s statement, saying he withheld the full brunt of the threat out of fear.
“What he really said was, ‘People who keep us from eating get eliminated,’ <TH>” Mr. Surprenant said. “Honestly, I felt intimidated.”
Mr. Surprenant has reinforced much of the story told by former construction boss, Lino Zambito, who described a corrupt system of awarding contracts in Montreal that cost the city millions.
Mr. Surprenant took a moment to praise Mr. Zambito, saying his testimony was “courageous” and “representative of the truth, of what went on.”
Mr. Zambito has been on a public-relations offensive in Quebec, giving interviews where he has added little detail to his eight days of testimony but where he has tried to polish his image. He even received an ovation on the variety show, Tout le Monde en Parle .