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Former FBI agent Joe Pistone, also known as Donnie Brasco, testifies behind a screen at the Charbonneau inquiry.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

He's a legend in law enforcement whose exploits are immortalized by Hollywood, but former FBI agent Joseph Pistone came to Montreal to say there's nothing glamorous about the mob's "octopus"-like grip in the mainstream world.

In highly anticipated testimony before Quebec's Charbonneau inquiry, the retired special agent known by his alias Donnie Brasco made an appearance worthy of the high-stakes underworld that made him famous. The star witness spoke from behind an opaque screen in the commission's chambers, shielded from cameras and under heightened security that extended to extra police in the downtown area around the commission headquarters.

A spokesman for the commission said Mr. Pistone, who is said to have had a $500,000 contract out on his head, requested the protection.

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"The public has an image of an honourable society. The Mafia is not honourable," Mr. Pistone said. "This is not the movies... this is real life. They are a dangerous plague on our society."

Part of the public's romantic view of the Mafia comes because of figures like Mr. Pistone himself. He's famous for having successfully infiltrated New York's Bonanno crime family for six years starting in the late-1970s, an unprecedented feat captured in the Oscar-nominated film Donnie Brasco, with Johnny Depp playing the title character.

The infiltration netted more than 200 criminal convictions in the mid to upper echelons of the mob, he told the commission.

Beyond Mr. Pistone's insider's primer on the world of wiseguys and consiglieri, on the differences between a made man and an associate, and the tips to avoid getting whacked (stay away from members' wives, girlfriends and daughters, for one), he offered a glimpse into the methods used by the mob to infiltrate the construction industry.

Some of his testimony echoed claims heard in Quebec in recent years, where reports found that major construction firms allegedly colluded on bids for public-works projects, driving prices up. Mr. Justice France Charbonneau of the Superior Court is probing corruption in Quebec's construction industry and its links to organized crime and political parties.

Mr. Pistone testified that a "club" of New York's five crime families in his day controlled construction projects either through the ownership of companies, control of building materials, or through the infiltration of unions; for example, a Mafia-run firm could pay cheaper non-union workers but charge more by claiming to hire unionized staff.

The Mafia's presence ultimately drives up the cost of projects, he said. "The government and taxpayers are paying more when the Mafia is involved in any particular business."

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He added that mob families cannot function without corruption of otherwise mainstream figures. "They corrupt public officials, they corrupt businessmen, they corrupt politicians," he said. "Without that corruption, they really cannot operate."

Some of Mr. Pistone's most colourful testimony shed light on the insider codes and culture within the Mafia. For example, he said, you can tell the rank of a crime-family member by the number of times he's kissed on the cheek by acolytes. Mondays to Fridays are reserved for members' girlfriends while weekends are for family. And the loyalty rankings start with your "Mafia family" followed by "your regular family, then your church and country."

As for why men risk their lives to join, he offered this explanation: "You can lie, you can steal, you can cheat, you can kill and it's all legitimate."

He also testified that Montreal and New York's Mafia had ties dating to the 1980s and, according to his information from law-enforcement officials, those links still exist.

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