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Lawyer presses Zambito on his motives for testifying at Quebec inquiry

FILE PHOTO: Former construction boss Lino Zambito testifies before the Charbonneau inquiry probing corruption and collusion in Quebec's construction industry in this image made off television Monday, October 1, 2012 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The question has burned since Lino Zambito first sat as a witness and started dropping bombs: Why would a man who fuelled a corrupt construction system for nearly a decade suddenly confess and rat out the fellow bosses, city officials and mobsters he says got rich with him?

The first star witness of Quebec's corruption inquiry was finally asked why he was spilling his guts as he ended his testimony on Wednesday and the answer was one of the shortest he's offered in eight days of testimony.

"I said if I was called to testify at the commission, I would do my duty as a citizen and testify," the former construction boss said.

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Sitting a few rows back, commission counsel Denis Gallant interjected with his own answer: "I call it a subpoena!" He promised to produce the document to officially answer the question posed by city of Montreal lawyer Martin St-Jean.

In many ways, Mr. Zambito was the man who unravelled Quebec's corruption scandal, when he was exposed by a Radio-Canada investigative team in 2009 and then became a source for many stories. Facing criminal charges for fraud and bribery along with his father, Giuseppe, it's not known if Mr. Zambito will continue to clear his conscience and offer evidence at coming trials, perhaps in exchange for clemency. Mr. Zambito and his father are under constant provincial police guard.

Mr. Zambito faced his most pointed examination yet on Tuesday from Mr. St-Jean, whose questions exposed gaps in Mr. Zambito's memory and cast a sliver of doubt on the all-consuming nature of Montreal's system of collusion and corruption.

Mr. Zambito acknowledged he only knew of six corrupt city officials. He never came in direct contact with the most senior of the people he accused, such as former Montreal city manager Robert Abdallah. (Mr. Abdallah promised to refute "point-by-point Mr. Zambito's hearsay" at a news conference Thursday.)

"You said the city is gangrenous at all levels, it seems more like one branch of a tree," Mr. St-Jean said. "It's easy to throw names into the wind, but at a certain point you have to get down to concrete matters."

Mr. Zambito replied that he was but one smaller company, dealing mostly in sewers and water mains, and even he dealt with all those corrupt officials and kicked back cash to the mayor's political party, Union Montreal.

The two provincial political parties that ruled Quebec since 1998, near the start of Mr. Zambito's construction career, faced vastly different treatment in his testimony.

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A lawyer for the Parti Québécois walked Mr. Zambito through all the contracts he had with the province from 1998 to 2003, when the PQ was in power. She meticulously illustrated that no cabinet ministers or party officials met with Mr. Zambito during that time. A handful of contracts were rigged, but not by anyone in government, he said.

By contrast, Mr. Zambito testified earlier that he plied Liberal cabinet ministers with roses and concert tickets, showered them with thousands in illegal donations, and was in regular contact with party operatives who took his cash-stuffed envelopes.

The Quebec Liberal Party only recently asked for full standing at the commission. After arguing unsuccessfully to go back and question Mr. Zambito on secret testimony he gave last week, the party's lawyer abruptly decided not to ask Mr. Zambito any questions.

Pierre Bibeau, one of the Liberal fundraisers Mr. Zambito accused of accepting illegal cash donations for the party, was demoted Thursday from his job as a vice-president of Loto-Québec.

Speaking on the last day of her visit to Paris, PQ Premier Pauline Marois said she spoke to the head of the provincial gaming agency earlier in the day. Mr. Bibeau "will no longer be in a position of authority and responsibility, at least until this question is cleared up," she said.

With a report from Sophie Cousineau in Paris

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