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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

Quebeckers often joke about the fact that Montreal has vastly more elected officials than most any city in North America, but the province's corruption inquiry has heard that this army of councillors and mayors went most of a decade without once directly questioning the city's corrupt engineering department.

Retired city engineer Gilles Surprenant said on Tuesday that a system he helped build to skim hundreds of millions of dollars off construction contracts using fictitious justifications for spiralling costs was an "open secret" at city hall.

"It was never questioned," said Mr. Surprenant, who walked the inquiry through part of the 91 contracts he helped fix, bringing him more than $600,000 in bribes. While Mr. Surprenant said he took the occasional cash kickback from 1990 to 2000, he testified that a fully integrated system of bribery and collusion took hold in 2000 and persisted until 2008.

"People talked about it and it was well-known among my superiors. … I don't know how word was spread, but it probably can be described as an open secret."

Mr. Surprenant recounted at least 62 instances in which he fattened contracts to allow construction companies to profit handsomely and kick back money to him, engineering department inspectors, the mob and the city's political masters. He said he collected bribes ranging from $1,000 to $22,000 on contracts worth $300,000 to $6.4-million.

Mr. Surprenant said he would add notes about rising fuel costs and increased use of concrete, among other excuses, to justify pumped up tenders. When a computer system produced an estimate that was too low, he would rip it up and start over. He said his superiors were in on it, and city councillors would sign without question.

The retired engineer's allegation in Monday's testimony that a 3-per-cent cut went to Mayor Gérald Tremblay's executive committee has not been corroborated. Others have said the money went to the mayor's party.

Mr. Surprenant has said no elected official asked him why Montreal contracts cost 35 per cent more than those in Toronto or Quebec City. He retired in 2009.

"Nobody in the administration or among my bosses came to talk to us to say we had to put a stop to it. It never happened. And it was certainly known that prices were up 30 to 35 per cent," Mr. Surprenant said. "To my knowledge, not one of my explanatory notes ever came back. It was accepted at every step, including the executive committee."

Montreal has 103 mayors and city councillors tasked with governing the city of 1.6 million. (Each borough has its own mayor and council.) Toronto has a mayor and 44 councillors overseeing a city with a million more people. Even New York and Los Angeles have half the number of elected officials or fewer.

But it wasn't until the media and auditor's reports began exposing corruption late in the decade that city hall began attempting to check bribes and collusion.

Mr. Surprenant said the bribes accelerated rapidly and were paid in $50 and $100 bills in construction offices, on street corners and at restaurants. Mr. Surprenant said the very first contract awarded in March, 2000, as the system ramped up, earned him $15,000 for a $4.4-million contract to replace sewer lines in Old Montreal. By early 2005, with 64 contracts through the system, his tally was at least $477,000, along with a $10,000 pair of season tickets for the Montreal Canadiens. He also got free meals, trips, booze, concert tickets and other gifts.

Mr. Surprenant said he never told friends and family what was going on. He lived in the same house for 30 years and blew much of the money on gambling, he said, although he did pay for some renovations with his stash of cash.

"I wasn't comfortable with this way of doing things, I wasn't comfortable with the amounts, and I didn't want it to change my lifestyle, or that of my children," Mr. Surprenant testified.

Others seemed to embrace a more ostentatious lifestyle. Mr. Surprenant said fellow city engineer Luc Leclerc lived in an opulent house alongside the homes of Frank and Paolo Catania, the father-and-son construction bosses who he said also paid bribes and benefited from inflated contracts.

Mr. Leclerc's salary was $97,000, while Mr. Surprenant earned $83,000, Mr. Surprenant said. Mr. Surprenant returned $122,800 to investigators when they questioned him in August.

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