The man several top engineering executives identified as the lynchpin in a contract-splitting scheme at Montreal City Hall says he helped firms meet to boost their chances of winning contracts, but he was not involved in collusion.

Bernard Trépanier, the former head of fundraising for the municipal party Union Montréal, told the province’s corruption commission today that a system of contract-sharing among engineering firms existed before he took up his post with the party in 2004.

They asked for his help, Trépanier testified, insisting that what was in place wasn't a "system of collusion," but rather an agreement in an open market.  He said he shared information with the firms about upcoming projects and helped to make sure the work was divided up fairly amongst them.

The City of Montreal announced today that it wants to recover more than $1 million in kickbacks that former employees admitted to pocketing for their role in contract collusion.

Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum said the city has to first file grievances with the employees' unions and then go to arbitration in an attempt to recover the funds.

The city wants to recuperate:

  • $521,000 from former engineer Gilles Surprenant
  • $550,000 from engineer Luc Leclerc, now retired
  • $49,000 from site supervisor François Thériault, who no longer works for the city

The city said the illegal kickbacks were confirmed through an internal investigation and not through the testimony presented before the commission by the three employees. Testimony presented before the commission cannot be used against a witness in criminal proceedings.

Applebaum said he promised Montrealers he would try to recover all the money that was stolen from the city when he took the job.

He said he plans to take further measures to get even more money back.

It was one of many apparent contradictions in testimony that drew exasperated responses from commission prosecutor Denis Gallant and requests for clarification from the chair of the commission, France Charbonneau.

Several times during his testimony, Trépanier was instructed to listen fully to the questions and not interrupt after responding with tangential information, sometimes read from a list he had prepared.

Before the start of his testimony Tuesday, Trépanier's lawyer confirmed he was one of the few witnesses who would not meet with commission investigators before testifying.

Trépanier denied ever asking for a three per cent cut from the engineering firms for every contract they won — an allegation which earned him the nickname Mr. Three Per Cent, according to previous witnesses before the commission.

He said his only role in collecting cash for the party was through tickets for fundraising events.

He did admit that the number of tickets for those cocktails that firms were expected to buy was tied to a list he had of firms that won city contracts. Those that won the larger projects would be expected to buy more tickets, he told the commission.

He also said he never asked for a cash infusion for the 2005 election, a request which several of the engineers said cost their firms between $100,000 and $200,000 and were delivered in one or two lump sums.

He later clarified to say that the money was collected over several years, not just for one election. Some of that money came in as payment for tickets sold for events, he said.

Trépanier reiterated that his job was to sell fundraising tickets to fill the party coffers.

Consortiums and contracts

Several witnesses have described Trépanier as the middleman in an ingrained collusion scheme, which they said required contributions to Union Montréal’s election campaigns in exchange for entry to a closed system of contract sharing.

Those witnesses  —including executives from some of the province’s largest engineering firms Dessau, SNC-Lavalin and BPR — said they were told in advance who each would partner with in a consortium to make the bids and how much they were to bid.

Trépanier initially denied any involvement in that arrangement, saying that he would let the firms "fight it out" once the tenders were released.

In 2004 and 2005, he said, there were very few tenders were being released by the city.

He then said, "I tried to make it fair and equitable for everyone," telling the commission he was involved in creating consortiums to put forward bids and he tried to facilitate openings for those who contributed to the party.

When challenged by Commission Chair France Charbonneau on how those two ideas existed concurrently, he said there was nothing stopping another consortium from making a bid.

"It wasn't predetermined," he said.

Lalonde's role challenged

One of the largest deviations from the testimony already heard by the commission was Trépanier's take on the role of engineer Michel Lalonde.

Lalonde testified before the commission in February, saying Trépanier had organized the contract-sharing system.

He said he stepped in to act as the "spokesman" for the engineering firms because Trépanier didn’t have an engineering background.

On several occasions, Trépanier called Lalonde "a liar" and said that he didn’t play the role the engineer described.  He was vague, and often contradictory, about what role he did play.

He described an incident at the end of 2005 when he said he was pushed out of the system by Lalonde and another witness who testified before the commission, Rosaire Sauriol of Dessau, after meeting with the pair at restaurant in Laval.

He said the men weren’t happy with the arrangement and were sick of paying money and not getting contracts in return.  

Trépanier said that he was told, "Don’t ask questions about where this is coming from because you could get hurt."

When pressed on where he thought that threat originated, he told the commission only that Lalonde often talked about "his neighbour."

The neighbour, Charbonneau clarified, was Nicolo Milioto, a construction boss who has been accused of filtering money to the Mafia — and another recent witness before the commission.

Trépanier refused to make the direct link to Milioto himself, but he didn't disagree with Charbonneau.

"I said, ‘I’ll back away from that problem and will sell my tickets,’" he said, referring to campaign fundraising events.

Phone records and meetings

However, the commission saw phone records which showed hundreds of calls between Lalonde and Trépanier placed after the alleged threat was delivered. Trépanier said Lalonde later apologized and said he would help him raise funds for the party.

Gallant also started to scratch away at the relationship between Trépanier and former executive committee head, Frank Zampino.

Calls between Trépanier and engineering and construction bosses

Michel Lalonde (Génius Conseil inc.): 984 calls between January 2005 and May 2010

Bernard Poulin (Groupe SM): 894 calls between January 2005 and January 2010

Paolo Catania (F. Catania & Associates): 1371 calls between February 2005 and December 2009

Tony Accurso (Louisbourg Construction) 197 calls between January 2005 and October 2010

Trépanier described Zampino as a friend and has told the commission he helped on several of his campaigns for free.

Other witnesses described Zampino as the ultimate overseer of the collusion scheme, one who was directing Trépanier on whom should take part and what contracts they should bid on.

Trépanier admitted he had easy access to Zampino's office and had taken trips and met up with him often for social meals. But he flatly denied ever talking to his friend about fundraising or contract sharing between the firms.

Tomorrow, when Trépanier returns to the witness box for a third day, the commission will examine more of the phone records capturing the calls made between the former party fundraiser and the former executive committee head, many placed right around the time when contracts were about to be awarded.