A retired City of Montreal engineer was the one who came up with a cash-for-contracts scheme — and not construction bosses — according to an entrepreneur testifying before Quebec's corruption commission.

Giuseppe Borsellino of Garnier Construction told the Charbonneau commission that it was Gilles Surprenant, an engineer with the city's public works department, who proposed the widespread collusion scheme that Surprenant admitted last year netted him more than $600,000 in kickbacks.

"The guy had everything in front of him to promote collusion, promote corruption, losing money if the city didn't pay. They had so much power,"  Borsellino testified.

"It happened, and it's going to continue to happen with the years to come."

"There's people at the city who are very powerful, and they could tell a contractor, 'You're not going to make any money unless you listen to me.'"

Last fall, an emotional Surprenant struggled to hold back tears as he told the commission how he was corrupted by the entrepreneurs. 

Borsellino says it actually happened the other way around: Surprenant proposed the collusion arrangement.

"He said, 'Maybe you could gather up a few contractors and see about arranging a system,'" Borsellino said of a meeting with Surprenant in the early 90s.

"I'm a new guy in the picture, and I was a little surprised. I let it go at that."

'There's people at the city who are very powerful, and they could tell a contractor, 'You're not going to make any money unless you listen to me.'''—Giuseppe Borsellino

He said Surprenant contacted him again a few years later in 1995 and presented him with a way to get more contracts in exchange for cash.

"I was happy with that at first. I was a new player in the game and said, 'Well, this is the way they're doing things. Let me get in to this.'"

At first, there was no fixed kickback, Borsellino said. He recalled giving Surprenant an envelope of cash but couldn't remember the amount. 

Later, Borsellino said, Surprenant told the contractors to work out amongst themselves who they wanted to win the bid.

Contradictions

Borsellino described his reaction, listening to the testimony of entrepreneur Lino Zambito and Gilles Surprenant before the commission last fall.

Surprenant insisted he wasn't the mastermind of the scheme but merely a participant. The retired engineer also said he felt pressured by the construction bosses to take part.

"What's wrong with that testimony is that he called that meeting," Borsellino said. "He wanted the contractors there, that's true."

Surprenant arranged a meeting at a restaurant with Borsellino, Frank Catania of F. Catania and Associates and Joey Piazza of TGA Montréal.

Catania and TGA were the two big players in Montreal at the time and usually came in first and second in most bidding contract tenders, Borsellino said.

Surprenant  told the construction bosses that he would help them get public works contracts, but they had to share the work, he said.

Borsellino said he wasn't comfortable with the arrangement but knew he wouldn't get work if he didn't participate.

By the early 2000s, Borsellino said the system included a kickback based on the percentage of the contract, and more companies were brought in.

"His business was starting to run," he said of Surprenant.

Paid for Italian vacations

Borsellino also told the commission he picked up the tab for a $50,000 vacation to Italy with a former high-ranking City of Montreal official and the former head of FTQ-Construction.

Giuseppe Borsellino of Garnier Construction told the commission that he paid for all meals, hotels and tickets to events for the 2008 trip with the former head of Montreal's public works department, Robert Marcil, and the ex-CEO of FTQ-Construction, Jocelyn Dupuis, as well as their spouses.

Borsellino also paid for plane tickets for Dupuis, Yves Lortie of the engineering firm Genivar and their wives.

He told the commission that Daniel Toutant, the CEO of the consortium that operates the toll bridge on Highway 25, joined the group in Florence.

Borsellino said he had invited Marcil to "improve relations with the city."  He said that several contracts his firm had won in previous years had later been cancelled, and he wanted to ensure his company was in good standing.

Commission prosecutor Simon Tremblay pointed out that Borsellino's company had won a $5 million city contract in 2007.

Marcil approved the final recommendation for that contract two weeks after the reservations for the trip to Italy were made, the commission heard.

Borsellino said in addition to the trip to Italy, he gave Dupuis hockey tickets and paid for his dinners at restaurants. He told the commission he never gave Dupuis cash, but his friend had never asked for any.

Borsellino also admitted giving Dupuis the keys to an investment property he owned at 1000 de la Commune — a building that has recently been in the spotlight because of the alleged links of several unit owners to organized crime.

Borsellino said he handed over the keys to the unit in 2007 and sold the condo in 2010 for a small profit.

He said those gifts eventually stopped because Borsellino felt he was being "taken advantage of" by Dupuis.

Borsellino will return to the witness stand tomorrow.