MONTREAL – The head of Quebec’s corruption inquiry lost patience with a witness testifying Wednesday about his relationship with construction bosses.
The former head of Montreal public works, Robert Marcil, was seen as being cosy with company owners but he wrapped up his appearance on the witness stand by continuing to deny that he knew anything about the collusion and bribes.
He denied accepting money in return for favourable decisions from the selection committees making the final call on contracts.
Phone and text-message records have shown that Marcil had extensive contacts with various Quebec contractors, despite his senior position at city hall.
He was even caught texting what inquiry officials described as sensitive information to one contractor. Marcil denied the accusation, saying it was public information and that he never told anyone about any conflict of interest.
At one point, commission chair France Charbonneau expressed annoyance with him when he said he couldn’t remember if he had contacted a political fundraiser with details from public-works meetings.
“Are you saying that you were stupid and incompetent?” asked Charbonneau.
Marcil replied: “I’m definitely not perfect.”
That prompted another put-down from the judge: “We agree on that.”
Charbonneau has occasionally made wry remarks during testimony. But she has generally refrained from making blunt statements about witnesses, a tactic that triggered accusations of bias during the federal sponsorship probe against John Gomery.
This inquiry has heard that companies that won construction contracts would inflate the costs and share percentages with the now-deteriorating Union Montreal party, along with the Mafia and corrupt civil servants.
Marcil began to sit in on more and more of the selection-committee meetings, even though he was admittedly dining with construction bosses at least two to three times a year. Phone records to his city-issued phone showed frequent chats with them.
He was confronted with telephone records that showed a Union Montreal party fundraiser, Bernard Trepanier, would call Marcil early in the morning just as meetings wrapped up.
Asked if he was telling Trepanier the results of those meetings, Marcil said he couldn’t remember the exact conversations.
Marcil continued to state that gifts for civil servants like wine, hockey tickets, golf and meals had been an accepted practice across Quebec for many years.
Small gifts, Marcil said, were seen as keeping good business relations. He said he also received gifts and handed them out when he worked in private firms.
The engineer had his employment terminated at the city after it came to light that he’d taken a trip to Italy on the dime of a construction boss, Joe Borsellino, of Garnier Construction.
Asked what the difference was between getting cash and having someone pay for the trip itself, Marcil said he viewed someone paying for a trip as a favour.
Marcil maintained that people in positions above his received similar favours and gifts.
Marcil said the trip to Italy was a mistake, but he insisted that he left the city of his own accord in 2009 to join a private engineering firm that had courted him for two years.
The inquiry counsel, Denis Gallant, has said that Marcil left because the Italy trip came to the attention of the city.
Marcil has admitted that he only paid for the flights for himself and his wife. The bill for the posh hotel stays was footed by Borsellino.
Gallant said that Marcil only stepped down after being asked to show proof he paid for the trip. Instead, the engineer tendered his resignation.
Marcil criticized the mayor at the time, Gerald Tremblay, saying the mayor wanted to “score political points” with his departure.
He said that, at the time of his departure, it was agreed that he was leaving as part of a career change. He lamented that Tremblay later changed the story to say he’d “cleaned house.”
Later Wednesday, the inquiry heard from Serge Pourreaux, former director of procurement for the city between 2003 and 2006.
Pourreaux said the city was well aware starting in the late 1980s that construction costs were out of whack with the rest of the province.
“Everyone knew that in Montreal, it costs 25 to 30 per cent more than elsewhere for infrastructure,” Pourreaux said.
“I think everyone knew — the companies knew, the engineering firms knew, most of the city engineers knew.
Pourreaux said the spike was caused by a closed market, strict criteria on work sites and slow payment by the city.
Pourreaux said the public explanations for the price discrepancy were never very good.
“Engineers went from one company to another and they knew about Montreal. It was common knowledge,” he said.
“It was always explained away as Montreal being ‘more complicated.'”
When Robert Abdallah took over as the city’s senior civil servant, Pourreaux recalled between 10 and 15 conversations about the high costs, which he said preoccupied his new boss.
He recalled one colourful quip from Abdallah. He said the city manager once told him: “‘Jesus, Serge, the fact that it costs more to pour a metre of concrete in Montreal than it does to send it up to James Bay makes no sense.'”
Pourreaux said it was also common knowledge that bosses who tried to enter the Montreal market were physically threatened, their homes were vandalized and their equipment was damaged.
Pourreaux said the Montreal public-works department operated in isolation from the rest of the city administration.
He described it as “a kingdom within a kingdom,” which considered itself untouchable. “It was a culture where they were the masters in charge,” said Pourreaux.
His testimony continues Thursday.