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Businessman Giuseppe Borsellino testifies at the Charbonneau inquiry looking into corruption in the Quebec construction industry Tuesday, February 5, 2013 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The construction boss's memory was full of holes, at first. He forgot the reason he lavished a powerful construction union president with gifts. He could not recall conversations, caught on tape by police it later turned out, where they spoke of arranging contracts.

But when the time came Tuesday to cast blame for the fixed system that ran Montreal city construction, Joe Borsellino's memory dating back two decades was clear, even if it contradicted most of the evidence heard so far at Quebec's corruption inquiry.

Mr. Borsellino testified it was not construction bosses backed by mobsters who commanded a system to rig many major infrastructure contracts in Montreal, as the inquiry has heard from engineers, police, a political aide and another construction boss. The mastermind, he said, was a meek low-level civil servant at the city of Montreal named Gilles Surprenant, a man who was a 30-something rookie engineer at city hall at the time.

"It was Gilles Surprenant who said: 'Why don't you guys get together and make a system,' " Mr. Borsellino said, recalling a conversation in the early 1990s. "I remember him calling this meeting. He wanted contractors there. Mr. Surprenant had the tools to promote corruption and collusion. We were at the mercy of the city."

Unlike the string of whistleblowers and confessed lawbreakers who have streamed through the inquiry, Mr. Borsellino was the first truly hostile witness Madame Justice France Charbonneau has faced. He refused to give the commission advance interviews, leaving counsel to question him on the fly.

Mr. Borsellino, the owner of Garnier Construction, offered friendship as the explanation for his close ties to Jocelyn Dupuis, the former head of one of Quebec's most powerful unions, FTQ-Construction. But using wiretaps from police investigations five years ago, the inquiry showed Mr. Dupuis was sending construction business Mr. Borsellino's way. Mr. Dupuis was fired from his job as union head in 2008 but implied in the wiretaps that he still had ties within the union to help Mr. Borsellino.

Mr. Borsellino bought Mr. Dupuis a trip to Italy, meals, hockey tickets and gave him unfettered use of a luxury condominium for nearly three years in a building known for housing well-heeled Montrealers alongside mobsters and biker-gang members.

Mr. Borsellino's memory was much better when it came to Mr. Surprenant. He resented the civil servant, he said, for skimming thousands of dollars in bribes off Montreal contracts Mr. Borsellino won in the 2000s.

Other witnesses have described how construction bosses such as Mr. Borsellino would divide contracts while paying kickbacks to civil servants such as Mr. Surprenant, who gave advance notice of projects and looked the other way while companies over-billed.

Overseeing it all were powerful members of the crime family headed by Vito Rizzuto, which collected its own percentage on every contract. The inquiry has seen videotape of construction boss Nicolo Milioto delivering sacks of cash from construction bosses to mobsters. (Mr. Milioto is expected to testify next.)

Mr. Borsellino described how a young upstart construction boss named Lino Zambito, a previous inquiry witness who first described the system of collusion, forced his way into the circle of chosen contractors. Mr. Zambito's company was incorporated in 1999 and was a major player by 2003, complained Mr. Borsellino, who saw his business grow much more slowly.

Mr. Borsellino tried to suggest Mr. Zambito must have had excellent contacts in "good places. Perhaps the public service, or government."

Justice Charbonneau finally showed her skepticism, suggesting the source of Mr. Zambito's power was actually the Mafia, and not Mr. Suprenant or some other bureaucrat.

"Could it have come from the Mafia," Mr. Borsellino said, pausing at length. "I couldn't answer that."