When it comes to talking business in luxurious privacy, some of Quebec's biggest construction magnates turn to a posh, members-only retreat in Old Montreal so discreet it goes just by its address: 357C.
The club boasts some of the finest gastronomy on the continent, a spa and Turkish bath, and a mahogany wine cellar with 4,000 bottles. It also keeps meticulous records of its guests. And that is how club 357C came to the attention of Quebec's corruption inquiry.
On Tuesday afternoon, the probe stripped away the blanket of discretion afforded to patrons of the exclusive redoubt. The club agreed to turn over its records, allowing a police investigator to outline hour-by-hour meetings between construction bosses, municipal fundraisers and politicians in the highest echelons of power at Montreal City Hall. And with the expected disclosure of names linked to the Quebec Liberal Party on Wednesday, anticipation about the mystery guest list is only growing.
The testimony by provincial officer Erick Roy offered a peek at the behind-the-scenes dealings being scrutinized by the Charbonneau Commission, including the chummy links between construction bosses and politicians and their impact on public-works contracts.
The commission made it clear it wasn't the well-regarded club that is at issue, but who walked through its burnished wood doors. "The importance of the testimony … is not so much the place as the meetings held there over a certain period of time," probe lawyer Denis Gallant said. "And the topics are of interest to the commission."
The patron and guest list allegedly includes two people linked to the Quebec Liberal Party, one of them in elected office. The commission was about to hear their identities when a Liberal Party lawyer rose and objected. Madam Justice France Charbonneau, unhappy with the delay, rebuked the lawyer and temporarily suspended proceedings, heightening speculation.
Other high-profile names did surface, however, in painstaking detail. For example, on May 18, 2006, Montreal construction boss Paolo Catania met at 357C with Frank Zampino, who was ex-mayor Gérald Tremblay's right-hand man and the second-most powerful man at city hall. Their tête-à-tête lasted from 11:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.
On Nov. 24, Mr. Catania sat down with four people including Bernard Trépanier, the fundraiser for Mr. Tremblay's Union Montreal party. Other names on the list included the mayor's chief of staff, Martial Fillion, public-works chief Robert Marcil, and city engineer Luc Leclerc, who has admitted to the commission to pocketing $500,000 in kickbacks from contractors.
The commission did not disclose what the men discussed. However, many names are connected to a controversial real-estate project known as Faubourg Contrecoeur in Montreal, in which Mr. Catania paid $5-million for city land valued at $50-million, with the help of Mr. Zampino, according to testimony at the commission. Several of those on the list were among the nine arrested in May in a large anti-corruption sweep on allegations of fraud and breach of trust over the Contrecoeur land deal.
Tuesday's testimony brought more unwanted exposure to the 10-year-old club, known to have 1,000 hand-picked members and a hush-hush reputation. The club's name has come up in testimony at the commission before. City engineer Gilles Vézina said he accepted an invitation to eat at the establishment with Nicolo Milioto, described at the commission as the middleman between construction entrepreneurs and the Rizzuto crime family. Another businessman testified he brought $100,000 to an unnamed private club, intended for Mr. Zampino.
The club on de la Commune Street, overlooking the Old Port of Montreal and the former Expo islands beyond, is owned by Quebec multimedia tycoon Daniel Langlois.