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Gifts from construction bosses part of business at Montreal City Hall, probe hears

Photographers take pictures of Chairman France Charbonneau off the closed circuit television in the media room at the Charbonneau inquiry looking into corruption in the Quebec construction industry Monday, September 17, 2012 in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Pricey dinners, golf games, hockey tickets and other freebies from construction bosses: For a senior municipal engineer, it was all part of the "business model" at Montreal City Hall.

Testimony before the Charbonneau Commission on Monday shows that questionable ethical practices weren't limited to junior employees. In a sign the probe is moving up the ladder of responsibility at the city, it heard Gilles Vézina, a manager with oversight powers, say that he too benefitted from acts of largesse from construction entrepreneurs.

It was, he said, considered part of his "business relationship" with the firms that got contracts with the city.

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Mr. Vézina attended family weddings and birthday parties of major Quebec construction bosses. He went to their corn roasts and played in their golf games. But he especially benefitted from free hockey tickets.

He said about eight construction companies and four engineering firms offered him numerous free tickets to games, sometimes in their corporate boxes. Apparently by way of explaining the gesture, he said the various donors knew he was a hockey fan.

"It was common practice at the city, part of a business model," he said of the gifts.

None of it influenced his decisions, he said. Rather, it was a sign of the companies' appreciation.

"At no time, with all the advantages we got, could I say it changed my opinion or my decision on any project," he said.

Mr. Vézina – who was suspended without pay by the city this month – was the boss of retired city engineers Luc Leclerc and Gilles Surprenant, who have both testified of receiving gifts, tropical golf trips and more than $1-million between them in cash bribes from construction bosses. Mr. Leclerc, in his final words to the inquiry, offered a measured expression of regret for what he'd done. After admitting during his testimony that he'd inflated the cost of public-works contracts with phony extras for companies that gave him kickbacks, Mr. Leclerc asked the public for "clemency."

While the inquiry continues to expose fresh evidence of corruption, it is also being rocked by its own internal controversies. Less than a month after chief prosecutor Sylvain Lussier resigned, the commission's deputy chief counsel also stepped down on Monday.

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Claude Chartrand wrote in his resignation letter, obtained by several media outlets, than he had been assigned administrative tasks for several weeks and the "link of mutual trust" with his superiors had been broken. He said he felt he was no longer able to contribute his 33 years of expertise to the commission.

Mr. Chartrand had been passed over for the top prosecutor's job, which went last week to Sonia LeBel. Mr. Lussier stepped down citing fear of an appearance of conflict of interest. In his private practice, Mr. Lussier represented a construction firm that had been the target of anti-corruption police raids.

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