The Charbonneau corruption inquiry is ending the year with a cliffhanger, disclosing without elaboration that two former Quebec Liberal cabinet ministers and Conservative Senator Leo Housakos are on a list of construction bosses, municipal fundraisers and politicians who met at an exclusive Old Montreal club.
The names are part of a ledger of “events of interest” at the private Club 357c that was presented by Quebec provincial police Sergeant Erick Roy, an investigator for the inquiry probing corruption in the construction industry. The inquiry did not disclose what was discussed, but some of the meetings outlined in the document corroborate previous testimony.
With the mention of Mr. Housakos on Wednesday, the cast of characters in the Charbonneau drama has now expanded into the federal realm.
According to evidence heard at the inquiry, Mr. Housakos held a meeting in May of 2007 with engineering boss Bernard Poulin, who has since been linked to attempts to influence the Prime Minister’s Office into appointing a former municipal bureaucrat as the Montreal Port Authority president at the time. Mr. Housakos also had a meeting at 357c in 2008 with Paolo Catania, a construction boss now facing fraud charges.
“How was I supposed to know [four years ago] that some of those individuals would be charged with serious criminal offences and their names would appear on countless occasions being accused of doing very unsavoury things,” Mr. Housakos said in an interview. He added he was shocked to hear his name mentioned without any advance warning. He said he fully supports the inquiry’s work, but added the publication of the meetings raises the spectre of guilt by association.
“Not everybody in the construction industry and engineering industry are crooked, not everybody in the fundraising processes of the political system break the rules,” he said.
In addition to Mr. Housakos, other people who met with big players in the construction industry at the private club include former Liberal provincial ministers Line Beauchamp and Tony Tomassi, as well as a number of key officials on Montreal’s municipal scene.
The reservation logs do not provide information on the topics that were discussed at the various meetings, raising questions over the value of the information that was disclosed just ahead of a two-month break in the inquiry’s public hearings.The inquiry is not hearing other witnesses until Jan. 21.
In cross-examination by a lawyer for the provincial Liberals, Sgt. Roy testified he could not infer from the document whether the meetings involved public contracts or political party financing.
The inquiry document shows that Mr. Housakos met with Mr. Catania on April 7, 2008. Also, on June 21, 2007, Mr. Housakos hosted a cocktail and dinner party for the Action Démocratique du Québec. Among the 12 guests, the log shows, was construction boss Joseph Borsellino who, according to earlier testimony, was allegedly involved in a price-rigging cartel involving municipal contracts.
“In this context, we see an entrepreneur who has been invited to a cocktail for the ADQ and we’ve seen the profile of Mr. Housakos,” Sgt. Roy said. “So we see there are links between entrepreneurs and fundraising.”
Mr. Housakos was a political organizer and fundraiser at the time of the meetings. He was appointed to the Senate in December of 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
On May 17, 2007, Mr. Housakos lunched with a small group that included Mr. Poulin. Last year, The Globe and Mail and Radio-Canada revealed that Mr. Poulin and construction boss Antonio Accurso contemplated enlisting Mr. Housakos to help municipal bureaucrat Robert Abdallah obtain the job of president of the Montreal Port Authority in early 2007. Mr. Housakos denied ever discussing the Port nomination with Mr. Poulin, nor with his political ally, Dimitri Soudas, who worked in the PMO at the time.
Mr. Harper defended Mr. Housakos on Wednesday, saying he has “no information of any credible allegation against this particular individual.”
The commission so far has woven an incomplete canvas of collusion, price-fixing and kickbacks involving construction bosses and engineering firms, some with ties to organized crime, and has only just begun to scratch the surface of provincial party financing.
Ms. Beauchamp, the former Liberal minister, defended her integrity and denied discussing party fundraising during the two meetings she attended at the club. “I am a free woman, a woman of principle. I am nobody’s puppet,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Beauchamp said she called the two meetings to discuss the economic situation in Quebec, especially in Montreal, and had no way of knowing that business leaders in attendance, such as Mr. Catania or Frank Minicucci, Mr. Accurso’s right-hand man, were involved in construction firms that would later be charged with fraud. “During the first meeting the discussions involved vehement criticism of the government’s public-private partnerships,” she said. “In the second meeting I remember discussing concerns over keeping an open market with China.”
Mr. Tomassi, another former Liberal minister, also met twice with Mr. Catania at the 357c club. The first meeting was in February of 2008 when Mr. Tomassi was parliamentary secretary to then-premier Jean Charest. The second meeting was in February of 2009 when Mr. Tomassi was family minister. In May of 2010 he resigned his cabinet post after being accused of fraud and breach of trust. A trial date will be set next week.
With a report from Bill Curry in Ottawa