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quebec probe

Gilles Surprenant, a retired engineer at the City of Montreal, testifies before the Charbonneau Commission on this image made off television Oct. 18, 2012.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The King of Laval has set aside his crown.

Gilles Vaillancourt, the mayor of Montreal's biggest suburb, stepped down on Wednesday in what his associates are describing as a temporary leave ordered by his physician. The news broke just hours after Quebec's anti-corruption squad seized safety deposit boxes belonging to Mr. Vaillancourt at two banks.

Investigators are looking for tens of millions of dollars, some of which may have been funnelled to offshore banks, Radio-Canada's investigative team reported late Wednesday.

The man nicknamed "King" for ruling Canada's 12th-largest city with little opposition for 23 years will consider whether to carry on as Laval's mayor, according to Basile Angelopoulos, the vice-president of the mayor's executive committee.

"He needs to find serenity to complete such a reflection," Mr. Angelopoulos told a news conference. "He'll let you know the fruit of that reflection soon."

Mr. Angelopoulos said "the city of Laval is not in crisis," despite police raids the past month on City Hall, the mayor's two million-dollar homes and now his banks.

France Charbonneau, the head of an inquiry into corruption in Quebec's construction industry, named Laval as a primary target last month. Ms. Charbonneau has already heard that companies rigged hundreds of millions of dollars in bids at the provincial and municipal level all around the province.

But the inquiry has so far mainly concentrated on Montreal city hall, where witnesses have said a system of graft operated for a decade. This week's testimony at the Charbonneau commission has concentrated on Montreal's sewer and water projects, which were almost entirely rigged from 2000 to 2009.

On Wednesday, retired engineer Gilles Surprenant finished walking the inquiry through 92 contracts he said he helped inflate, pegging bribes of $1,000 to $22,000 to each project. The tally did not include the trips, hockey and concert tickets, booze, meals and rounds of golf construction bosses gave him.

Even when it came to the bribes he collected, Mr. Surprenant could not stay on budget. He revealed he collected at least $703,500 in bribes – 17 per cent more than the estimate he offered a week ago at the start of his testimony.

In a signal higher-ranking officials may next face the inquiry spotlight, the commission counsel sought details from Mr. Surprenant on his final rigged contract in 2009, which unnamed superiors made sure landed in his lap.

He said engineers at a suburban water treatment plant worked out an estimate of $5-million to replace pipes beneath a park. When bids came in at $6-million, low-level engineers decided they were unreasonable and sent the project back for tender.

In a move Mr. Surprenant described as "unprecedented," city bosses moved the project to his downtown office, where he expanded it, drew up an estimate for $8.9-million and then made up reasons to cover a construction company's bid of $9.7-million. The deal went for double the original estimate, but city managers and Mayor Gérald Tremblay's executive council approved it without a hitch.

"We were surprised to have it come back to us. We wondered who made the order, but we did not know," Mr. Surprenant said. "But we did know the contract came back to us for a reason: So it would get done."

In a claim that had commission counsel Denis Gallant rolling his eyes, Mr. Surprenant said he is a victim of the system he helped build. But Mr. Surprenant said it wasn't his job to call the cops. "I am not a villain. I am a bureaucrat who was corrupted," Mr. Surprenant testified. "In my case, the corrupt bureaucrat doesn't exist. ... Everyone knew. I talked about it with my superiors. I didn't think it was my role as a simple bureaucrat to go to police."

Mr. Surprenant testified that the system was so thoroughly rigged that, by 2006, a computer system was automatically producing inflated contracts, diminishing the need for construction bosses to pay him. Mr. Gallant appeared to lose patience with the retired engineer's attempts to recast himself as a man caught in a trap of filthy money set by construction companies.

"It's fine to play the poor little wretch stuck with the money, but you still got paid," Mr. Gallant said.

Mr. Surprenant said he didn't want any of it. "I didn't know what to do with it, and I gave back a large part of it," he said.

Mr. Surprenant has said he gambled away about $250,000, which he considered a repayment to society, lent $150,000 to one of the construction bosses, and turned in $122,800 to commission investigators. His accounting for the cash – the only one available so far – is expected to face close scrutiny under cross examination on Thursday.