Gilles Surprenant, who worked for the City of Montreal, said the first time he met Vito Rizzuto was during a week-long tropical golfing getaway in 1996 or 1997 that was organized and paid for by now-deceased construction boss Tony Conte.
Surprenant and Luc Leclerc, another city employee, arrived at the airport to find that Rizzuto, the reputed head of the Montreal Mafia, was the surprise member of their foursome.
In his second day of testimony before the Charbonneau Commission, Surprenant said he also golfed with Rizzuto again in Terrebonne, north of Montreal, in 2002.
Surprenant, who has had trouble remembering certain details, recalled vividly that he teamed with Leclerc against Rizzuto and construction boss Conte on that day. He remembered the day well because Rizzuto managed a 75-foot putt to win the game. Leclerc and Surprenant each gave Rizzuto $25.
They also had dinner and drinks with Rizzuto following their round of golf, all paid for by Conte.
On occasions when Surprenant met Rizzuto, former city engineer Leclerc was also present. But Surprenant insisted they never discussed city business with Rizzuto.
The golfing trips were one of dozens of treats Surprenant received throughout the years, he told the inquiry. They included golfing trips to the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico, some paid by construction bosses.
There was more golf at home as well as fancy dinners, bottles of wine, hockey and concert tickets. Gifts during the holiday season were the norm, Surprenant said.
A former construction boss earlier told the corruption inquiry that Surprenant was known as "Mr. TPS" to Montreal construction companies and that he took a one per cent cut called a "TPS" — the name being a tongue-in-cheek twist on the French-language acronym for the federal sales tax, the GST.
Surprenant said he'd heard of the so-called "TPS" which stood for "Taxe Pour Surprenant" (Tax for Surprenant), but denied it was true, calling it the invention of colluding construction moguls.
"I don't know where it came from, it's something the construction bosses came up with and they decided among themselves that one per cent went to me," Surprenant said.
Surprenant said he collected several thousand dollars on rigged contracts, but never came close to collecting one per cent of the amount.
He noted the most generous contractor was Lino Zambito, an ex-construction boss who wrapped up eight days of headline-grabbing testimony at the commission last week.
Surprenant has admitted to collecting nearly $600,000 in kickbacks over a 20-year period. Inquiry investigators have identified at least 90 contracts where Surprenant took a cut, the kickbacks becoming rampant around 2000.
But as early as 1995, contractors had met with Surprenant to complain that the value of contracts in Montreal was too low and that companies were losing money because there was no profit margin.
"They were taking shortcuts, they were going bankrupt, they were constantly asking for extras," Surprenant said.
Asked if he started artificially inflating contracts even in the mid-1990s, Surprenant said it was possible. Earlier, he'd mentioned anxiety medication caused certain memory lapses.
Between 1995 and 2000, Surprenant estimated he received a kickback on one contract a year
But by 2000, the cost of public works contracts in Montreal exploded by as much as 25 per cent, finally coming to a plateau in the 30-to-35-per-cent range by the mid-2000s.
Surprenant says his role was to manipulate a computer system that evaluated the cost of projects to ensure the price of contracts met what entrepreneurs wanted to pay.
He would receive a call about from a construction company chosen by the cartel one week before telling him the amount and he would find a way to justify the costs.
Surprenant discussed a system by which a handful of city employees were being given money and gifts in exchange for helping fixed contracts go through.
The retired engineer said city officials were aware of the inflated prices and even commissioned studies with comparable contracts in Toronto that showed the discrepancy, but nothing was done.
Surprenant used his testimony Monday to correct a statement he made last week that he attributed to construction magnate Frank Catania, who reportedly told him that people who "prevent us from eating are 'pushed aside'."
The comment came during discussions over a contract where Catania's company wanted double the proposed amount suggested for the contract.
Surprenant corrected the comments, saying the construction boss didn't say "pushed aside" but rather used the word "eliminated."
"Honestly, I felt intimidated," Surprenant said, visibly shaken.
Surprenant explained the correction by saying he felt intimidated and ill at ease with the 1991 encounter. It resulted in his first kickback of between $3,000 and $4,000.
"I was afraid of the consequences," Surprenant said Monday.
Surprenant has been hesitant in his testimony, which has included numerous memory lapses. On Monday, he testified his second kickback of about $5,000 came in 1995, but he couldn't recall who gave it to him.
The retired city engineer also confirmed part of what Zambito said during his eight days on the stand — that cuts were set aside for the Mafia and the governing party at Montreal's city hall.
Surprenant says the information was given to him by Leclerc, who was well connected with construction companies and helped him to get invited to trips and parties.
The equivalent of 2.5 per cent of contracts were going to "a criminal organization that met at Cafe Consenza," Surprenant said, without naming the Mafia.
Meanwhile, three per cent went to the city's "executive committee," Surprenant said. The body is made up of elected officials from the governing party.
Surprenant even praised Zambito for being "courageous" in his testimony.
Zambito testified that the three per cent was going to Union Montreal, Mayor Gerald Tremblay's party.
Earlier on Monday, commission head France Charbonneau urged the media to be cautious when revealing public information about witnesses.Suggest a correction