Quebec's construction inquiry scrutinizes meetings involving a federal senator

MONTREAL – A sitting member of Canada’s Senate, who has been an influential fundraiser for the federal Conservative party, was named Wednesday at Quebec’s construction inquiry for attending meetings now being scrutinized at the high-profile probe.

Sen. Leo Housakos met with two players in the world of political fundraising and construction who now face numerous criminal charges in an unrelated affair. One of the senator’s meeting companions, Paolo Catania, runs a construction empire alleged to have extensive ties to the Sicilian Mafia.

Housakos was described Wednesday as having attended two meetings and hosted one at a swanky, members-only Montreal club.

His name appears in a detailed ledger of people who frequented Club 357c, a high-end establishment located at that address on de la Commune Street, in the heart of Montreal’s old city.

The document was deposited before Quebec’s Charbonneau Commission today and includes Housakos’ name as well as those of prominent members of the Quebec Liberal party and local municipal councillors, among others.

The dates Housakos frequented the club all precede his appointment to the Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in December 2008.

Previously, he was appointed by Harper to the board of Via Rail. He worked for BPR, one of Quebec’s largest engineering firms. And he was also a partisan political fundraiser, at the federal level and at the provincial level for the now-defunct Action democratique du Quebec, and

Housakos’ name appears in a first instance for a breakfast meeting on May 17, 2007, hosted by Bernard Poulin, head of S.M. Group International, an engineering firm.

The event was attended by two others — including Bernard Trepanier, a fundraiser for the Union Montreal municipal party who has become dubbed in local media as “Mr. Three Per Cent” for the alleged corrupt fundraising practices of the city’s ruling party. Also at the meeting was Lison Benarroch, a vice-president with S.M. Group International.

Housakos and Poulin’s names surfaced during the 2011 federal election campaign amid a controversy surrounding the process by which appointments were made at the Montreal Port Authority.

A former aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Dimitri Soudas, acknowledged that the government indicated a preference for Robert Abdallah as president of the Montreal port board, as did the City of Montreal.

Abdallah, a former high-ranking public servant with Montreal and a longtime construction executive himself, did not get the post.

An audio recording surfaced purporting to be the voices of Poulin and construction magnate Tony Accurso discussing how Housakos could help get Abdallah appointed to the prestigious post. Housakos was referred to “Leo” during the recording.

Accurso and Bernard Poulin have never commented directly on the recordings other than to underline that making recordings of private conversations without the consent of the parties is against the law.

In a separate entry, Housakos himself hosted a dinner and cocktail fundraiser for the now defunct Action democratique du Quebec, for which he was a chief fundraiser.

The event, on June 21, 2007, was attended by 12 people, but the only name that isn’t blacked out among them is Joe Borsellino, head of Garnier Construction.

Inquiry investigator Erick Roy says the names of the other invitees were blacked out because they couldn’t be identified or had nothing to do with the inquiry’s mandate.

He says the meeting between Housakos and Borsellino serves to show a direct link between political fundraising and the construction world.

“In this context, we see an entrepreneur who has been invited to a cocktail for the ADQ and we’ve seen the profile of Mr. Housakos,” Roy told the commissioners on Wednesday. “So what we see here is a direct link between entrepreneurs and party financing.”

Housakos’ name appears on a third occasion for a noon meeting in April 2008 with Catania — who now faces criminal charges and heads a construction empire described at the inquiry as having extensive links to the Sicilian Mafia.

By the end of the year, he was appointed to the Senate.

Housakos’ profile was also deposited before the commission — something counsel has done to be able to identify people whose names have come up during the proceedings.

Housakos was a former vice-president at BPR, an engineering firm, he also headed TerrEau Inc., a BPR affiliate company. He also ran in a federal election in 2000 in Laval under the Canadian Alliance banner.

Investigators have said that names of people they did not recognize or were not relevant to them had been blacked out. However, Housakos’ name appears in the 10-page document on three occasions.

There were only two ways to gain access to the Montreal club — you had to be a member or be invited by a member. And they kept meticiulous notes on who came and went and even what was eaten and drank at the events.

The club itself, where membership runs about $3,500 a year, is of no interest to Quebec’s corruption inquiry, commission counsel Denis Gallant noted Tuesday.

But who went to meet there is.

The full list includes numerous construction bosses, engineering firm executives, city officials, municipal politicians and a few Quebec Liberals.

The provincial Liberals who attended meetings include the former education minister, Line Beauchamp, and the former family minister, Tony Tomassi, who faces criminal charges in an unrelated matter. One of the party’s top organizers, Pierre Bibeau, was also on the list.

The inquiry has not alleged that anything illegal went on at the club — only that it hosted meetings that show clear links between the construction industry and people involved in political fundraising.

Inquiry investigators became interested in the club in October after a previous witness, a loanshark with ties to Catania, mentioned making a cash drop at the establishment for a municipal official who now faces criminal charges.

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