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Construction bosses’ rivalry takes centre stage in Charbonneau hearings

Joe Borsellino testifies at the Charbonneau inquiry in Montreal on Thursday. Evidence at the hearings points to a battle for political influence between Mr. Borsellino and rival magnate Tony Accurso.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

A clear picture of two construction bosses competing for influence in powerful political and union circles has emerged from the fog of confused and contradictory evidence at Quebec's corruption inquiry.

Fresh wiretap recordings introduced Thursday exposed the chummy relationship between the bosses, two of the province's biggest unions, and Tony Tomassi, then a Liberal member of the National Assembly who, recordings show, was wined and dined by construction executives before and after he was named to cabinet Dec. 18, 2008.

The contestants in the battle for influence were construction magnate Tony Accurso and fellow industry boss Joe Borsellino, who testified Thursday at the inquiry. The two men were part of a vast system of collusion on public construction contracts in the Montreal region, evidence has shown. Focus at the inquiry shifted Thursday from corrupt civic officials and mob kickbacks to higher spheres of influence.

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In the wiretaps, Mr. Borsellino talks about a bash he threw for Mr. Tomassi to celebrate his elevation to a cabinet post.

"Everyone was after him. He's a cabinet minister," Mr. Borsellino said, describing the party to former FTQ-Construction union boss Jocelyn Dupuis in one of three conversations recorded between the two men in late 2008.

Mr. Borsellino suggests in one conversation that Mr. Accurso had invited Mr. Tomassi "on his boat to do his routine." Mr. Accurso's famous boat, a luxury yacht called the Touch, has long been a symbol of Quebec's corruption scandal. A ride on the Touch proved the downfall of Frank Zampino, the second most powerful politician at Montreal city hall, who took a ride before major city contracts were awarded to Accurso companies. (Mr. Accurso and Mr. Zampino both face criminal charges.)

Former premier Jean Charest long denied anyone in his government had taken a ride on the yacht, including, most recently, during last summer's election campaign. Mr. Tomassi was forced to resign from cabinet and was kicked out of the Liberal caucus in 2010 for other alleged improprieties. He now faces fraud charges.

Inquiry head Justice France Charbonneau accused Mr. Borsellino of "trying to get out of" testifying truthfully as he tried to wriggle out of revelations in the taped conversations. For one, he suggested he may have invented the story about Mr. Accurso's yacht.

"If I said bateau, it doesn't mean bateau," Mr. Borsellino said in one of the many franglais contradictions that have characterized his testimony. "You can interpret it the way you like. … the boat, maybe it was me who added that part."

Mr. Tomassi wasn't the only powerful official being courted by Mr. Borsellino and Mr. Accurso that fall. They were also rivals for the favour of Michel Arsenault, head of the powerful FTQ labour group and the Fonds de solidarité FTQ, an $8.8-billion investment fund. The fund has invested more than $114-million in Mr. Accurso's firms over the past 20 years, and Mr. Borsellino wanted funds for his own business projects.

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In one conversation, Mr. Borsellino describes a three-day party where they celebrated Mr. Tomassi's selection to cabinet. During the party, he said, Mr. Tomassi took a call from Mr. Arsenault, who was calling from Mr. Accurso's borrowed cellphone.

Mr. Dupuis and Mr. Borsellino exchanged a string of invective about the fact Mr. Arsenault and Mr. Accurso were together. Mr. Borsellino was hoping to use Mr. Dupuis's connections into the investment fund to get money for a project. (Mr. Borsellino later denied this in testimony.)

In the recording, Mr. Dupuis curses and says "we'll get" Mr. Arsenault. Mr. Borsellino urges patience in the wiretap. "Slowly but surely, my friend. Slowly but surely."

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