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Frank Zampino, former chairman of the Montreal executive committee, arrives at the Charbonneau inquiry looking into corruption in the Quebec construction industry Tuesday, April 16, 2013 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The political veteran depicted as a lynchpin in the system of collusion that festered for years at Montreal city hall is minimizing his clout and defending his attendance at a wedding between members of two families with reputed ties to the criminal underworld.

Frank Zampino began a long-anticipated appearance before Quebec's corruption probe Wednesday with a calm and occasionally combative demeanour, listing his civic accomplishments and trying to dispel his reputation as being the power behind the throne at Montreal city hall.`

But the focus on the now-retired Mr. Zampino, who wielded influence as former mayor Gérald Tremblay's right-hand man, quickly turned to the company he has kept. Lead counsel Sonia LeBel grilled him about his attendance at the 1991 nuptials linking the Cotroni and Di Maulo clans, two families associated with the Mafia in Montreal. Mr. Zampino at the time was the mayor of St-Léonard in north-end Montreal.

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Mr. Zampino says he received 40 to 50 invitations a year to weddings when he was mayor of St-Léonard and turned most of them down. He was invited to the marriage involving the two Mob-associated families through one of his political organizers, who happened to be a cousin in the Di Maulo family, he said.

Mr. Zampino was quick to defend his attendance, telling the commission it was unfair to "insinuate" he had ulterior motives. Pressed by Ms. LeBel, however, he acknowledged that the optics were poor.

"It wasn't the most brilliant decision of the century to go to the marriage," Mr. Zampino said.

The son of the late reputed Mob boss Frank Cotroni and daughter of Giuseppe "Joe" Di Maulo were wed in 1991. Mr. Di Maulo, who is most closely identified as a member of the Calabrian wing of the Mob, was shot dead in his Montreal driveway last November.

Mr. Zampino marks the highest-ranking city politician to take the stand at the commission, which is delving into the covert ties between construction entrepreneurs, politicians, civil servants and the Mafia, and has been dominating life in the province since it began last year. Witnesses have placed Mr. Zampino at the centre of a scheme to let construction and engineering firms share lucrative public-works contracts, and one engineering boss called the former executive-committee chairman the "most powerful man in Montreal."

While the questions about the wedding party put Mr. Zampino on the defensive, the trained chartered accountant turned the tables later against Ms. LeBel. Often unflappable, he challenged her about everything from a log of phone calls from controversial political fundraiser Bernard Trépanier to the real extent of his power. "The city of Montreal isn't the affair of one man," Mr. Zampino told Justice France Charbonneau.

Mr. Zampino faces criminal charges including fraud and conspiracy after being arrested by anti-fraud investigators in connection with a controversial deal that saw city-owned land sold at a fraction of its cost.

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