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Former Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay arrives to testify before the Charbonneau inquiry looking into corruption in the Quebec construction industry Thursday, April 25, 2013 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The former mayor of Montreal has accused the city's ex-police chief of ignoring a complaint that a top political fundraiser tried to extort a million dollars from an Ontario company trying to launch a project in Quebec.

In his first day of testimony at Quebec's corruption inquiry, Gérald Tremblay offered his own answer to a perplexing question raised by the Charbonneau commission: How could a vast, corrupt system run city construction for an entire decade without a police crackdown?

Mr. Tremblay, who resigned last fall amid allegations he allowed corruption to flourish under his watch, testified Thursday that in 2006 he received a call from an executive at SmartCentres, a Vaughn, Ont., shopping centre developer, complaining that Union Montréal fundraiser Bernard Trépanier had demanded a $1-million bribe to allow the company to launch a project in the city.

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Mr. Tremblay said he informed his right-hand man, Frank Zampino, fired Mr. Trépanier and met the police chief, who swiftly dismissed the matter, saying there would be no investigation.

"I met Yvan Delorme. I told him about it and he told me very clearly: 'Gérald, there was no act committed, so there's nothing to investigate,'" Mr. Tremblay said. "I saw him again later, asked again, 'Are you sure there's nothing we can do? An investigation to make sure something like this doesn't happen again? I don't want the reputation of Montreal to be sullied like this by someone representing himself as an official of the mayor.'"

Now retired, Mr. Delorme told two Montreal newspapers that he doesn't recall such a conversation and he would never be so dismissive of a mayor's complaint about criminal activity.

In a day of testimony that exposed backroom dealings of some high-profile controversies and departures that took place under a cloak of secrecy, one broad theme became clear: In Mr. Tremblay's view, few high-level city officials shared his concern for the appearance of ethical conduct. He described how he was astounded to learn a city manager, the chair of his executive committee, a top public works official and his chief fundraiser all had close links to and took gifts from construction bosses.

Each of the city officials resigned or were fired under circumstances left murky at the time of their departure. Mr. Tremblay cultivated some of the mystery. He said he fired former city manager Robert Abdallah in 2006 for having regular, private fine-dining meetings with construction boss Tony Accurso – but told no one of the grounds for the dismissal. And the year after Mr. Abdallah was fired, Mr. Tremblay was quoted in La Presse endorsing Mr. Abdallah's work as city manager and saying he would make a fine head of the Port of Montreal. The office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper also touted him for the job.

Similarly, Mr. Tremblay told almost no one why he fired Mr. Trépanier, and within months he was back at fundraising events attended by the mayor. Mr. Tremblay even thanked Mr. Trépanier publicly at one event for filling the hall. In both cases, Mr. Tremblay said he kept the secrecy to protect his informants.

The Charbonneau inquiry has heard how officials from construction site inspectors to Mr. Zampino, the second-most powerful politician at city hall, were wined and dined by a coterie of construction bosses who controlled city contracts. Some officials have admitted to taking cash bribes, and many more took gifts ranging from hockey tickets to overseas trips and, in Mr. Zampino's case, vacations on Mr. Accurso's yacht.

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Mr. Tremblay says he didn't know Mr. Zampino was a long-time friend and frequent travel companion of Mr. Accurso and Rosaire Sauriol, the head of engineering firm Dessau, when a consortium involving both men won a $355-million contract to install water meters in city businesses. In fact, the relationships among the men dated back to long before Mr. Tremblay first began campaigning for mayor in 2000, adding Mr. Zampino to the ticket.

Mr. Tremblay said he would have fired Mr. Zampino had he known. He was also enraged by the appearance of conflict of interest when Mr. Zampino left the city to work for Mr. Sauriol in 2008. He said he phoned both men to talk them out of it but they each brushed him off.

"There was no way I could justify to the public that after the biggest contract in the history of the city was awarded, the chair of my executive committee goes to work for the firm that gets the contract," Mr. Tremblay said.

His denial that he did not previously know of Mr. Zampino's ties to construction bosses met with some skepticism from the inquiry chair, Madame Justice France Charbonneau. "None of your friends, none of the people who were loyal to you, told you of these links? How could that be?" she said. Mr. Tremblay had no explanation.

Mr. Tremblay resigned amid allegations that he looked the other way while corruption permeated the city's construction contracts, with the Mob, city officials and the mayor's party all taking a cut.

"If you are not naïve or willfully blind, how did you not see that?" Judge Charbonneau asked.

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"See what?" Mr. Tremblay answered immediately. His testimony will continue Monday.

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