"Dear Lino," the Quebec cabinet minister wrote to construction boss Lino Zambito.
It was 2008, and municipal affairs minister Nathalie Normandeau was thanking Mr. Zambito for an impressive gift: a bouquet of 40 roses for her 40th birthday, which the contractor had sent to her Quebec City office. Judging from the personal note, the minister seemed to appreciate it. "The roses were magnificent," she wrote by hand. "Forty times thank you."
The thank-you letter from a Quebec politician to a now-notorious businessman, presented last week before Quebec's Charbonneau probe, marks the first time that the inquiry into corruption in the construction industry has heard testimony involving a provincial politician. The testimony by Mr. Zambito was struck by a publication ban, portions of which were lifted on Tuesday.
His testimony exposes the chummy links between construction entrepreneurs, engineering firms, provincial politicians, their parties, and the money moving between them in Quebec.
In the case of Mr. Zambito and Ms. Normandeau, who has retired from politics, the contractor's generosity extended to bouquets of roses and free tickets to see Céline Dion, the commission heard.
It also involved contributing regularly to Liberal Party coffers. Mr. Zambito took part in fundraisers for Ms. Normandeau at a time when she was municipal affairs minister and Mr. Zambito was a major builder bidding on public-works contracts. For one Liberal Party fundraiser that he organized, he'd invited his contacts in engineering and construction firms and set the price for two attendees at $10,000; however, he said, because the legal contribution limit is $3,000, guests were told they would have to write four cheques for $2,500 each, which could be signed by friends, family or employees.
Although the event raised $110,000, the official record submitted to Quebec elections office showed the Liberal Party only raised $77,500. The discrepancy was not explained.
Mr. Zambito also described a covert system to funnel cash to provincial parties. Engineering firms bid on Quebec-financed projects, and would create false "extras" for contractors on project work sites that inflated the cost; the tab would be covered by the public purse, and a portion of the inflated bill would be given as a donation to political parties.
"So in the end, all these contributions are, in reality, paid by the public, by taxpayers?" asked commission head France Charbonneau.
Mr. Zambito reluctantly agreed: "It's the citizen that pays."
He also said he was approached by a Liberal organizer and fundraiser for former Liberal labor minister David Whissell; the man came to Mr. Zambito's office to seek a donation of $50,000 to the Liberal Party to help solve a problem for the contractor. It was only after Mr. Zambito contacted people he knew within the Liberal Party that the matter was dropped and payment never made, he said.
Mr. Zambito was vice-president of now-defunct Infrabec, which has been identified as one of about 10 firms that colluded to rig prices on contract bids in Montreal for years.
His largesse to Ms. Normandeau, who was also deputy premier in the Charest government, didn't stop at flowers. Mr. Zambito also sent nine tickets to her office to attend a Céline Dion concert in his private corporate box at Montreal's Bell Centre, he told the commission. The evening of the concert, Ms. Normandeau showed up with her bodyguard and a member of her family; she was joined by her chief-of-staff and other political staffers in the Liberal government.
At one point, the gathered guests heard a knock on the door of the corporate suite. Two high-profile politicians appeared: Quebec education minister Michelle Courchesne and Gilles Vaillancourt, the long-time mayor of Laval, whose city includes Ms. Courchesne's riding. Last week, Mr. Vaillancourt's home, and Laval City Hall, were raided by Quebec's anti-corruption squad.