Earlier testimony suggested city officials benefited by co-operating with bid-rigging in public procurement
MONTREAL—A corrupt cartel that controlled Montreal’s construction industry was not set up by the Mafia, or by company bosses, but by a municipal functionary, according to testimony heard February 5.
That account, provided by a construction boss at Quebec’s corruption inquiry, marked a dramatic departure from previous testimony heard in recent months. Earlier testimony had suggested that city officials simply drew financial benefit by co-operating with the bid-rigging system in public procurement.
But, to hear Joe Borsellino tell it, a mid-level bureaucrat was the one pulling the strings.
The Garnier Construction boss said it was city engineer Gilles Surprenant—who has since earned the nickname “Mr. GST”—who masterminded the collusion. Borsellino said he had heard rumours about collusion in the Montreal construction industry since the 1980s, but he said his first experience with the system came in an encounter with Surprenant.
He said that as his company became active in public bids, Surprenant urged him to partner up in schemes with other companies. Borsellino said nothing came of that first conversation. But he said Surprenant convened another meeting in the mid-1990s and said to three construction bosses, “Guys, work together.”
Borsellino explained why construction companies might be vulnerable to such pressure. He said contractors face financial disaster when a job goes wrong, and the early 1990s were especially tough.
“We suffer. We suffer because we don’t get paid,” he said. Municipal decision-makers have considerable power to delay or hinder a project, he said. “When the key man (in the city) calls and says, ‘Come and see me, I can solve your problem,’ (we go).”
He bluntly predicted that, despite all the ongoing efforts in Quebec to clean up the industry, such a dynamic will always exist.
“It happened. And it’s going to continue to happen in the years to come. There’s people at the city who were very powerful,” Borsellino said. “And they could tell a contractor, ‘You’re not gonna make any money unless you listen to me.”
The inquiry has previously heard that, for many years, a cabal of construction companies conspired to inflate the price of construction projects in Quebec, and split the profits with political parties, the Mafia and friendly civil servants like Surprenant.
Commission chair France Charbonneau appeared to be treating the Surprenant narrative with a heavy dose of skepticism, stepping in to question the witness’s suggestion that a civil servant could wield that much power in such a risky business.
“So what you’re telling me is the great mastermind of all of this was Gilles Surprenant, when he was 30 years old?” Charbonneau asked.
“Yes,” Borsellino replied.
He said he was extorted, too. Borsellino said he often argued with Surprenant about how much he had to give as a payout because the latter always wanted more. Many times during his testimony, Borsellino was short on specifics. The witness had trouble remembering if the first attempt at a rigged contract between three firms worked. He couldn’t remember how much Surprenant received as a kickback.
Surprenant has already admitted to inflating prices on projects and collecting more than $700,000 in kickbacks over the years. But the retired bureaucrat offered a different version of the facts about the origins of the corruption when he testified last fall.
“I’m not a villain. I am a civil servant who has been corrupted,” Surprenant said, emphasizing that the corruption originated with contractors themselves. Also Tuesday, Borsellino said he buttered up a powerful union boss with expensive hockey tickets, fancy dinners and even a trip to Italy. He couldn’t say if he got anything in return.