03/11/2013 05:21 EDT | Updated 05/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Ex-city manager says he was naive, not corrupt

A former City of Montreal manager says he was used by former executive committee head Frank Zampino, who he says asked him to support questionable decisions like pushing through the ill-fated, multi-million dollar water meter contract.

Claude Léger told the province’s corruption commission today that he thought Zampino took actions to test Léger's limits, and then bypassed him when he didn’t like the outcome.

Léger left the city in 2009 in the wake of the disastrous $355 million water meter project that was cancelled after questions arose about conflicts of interest in the tendering process.

He said he stepped down voluntarily, and former mayor Gérald Tremblay later wrote him a letter confirming he left the city of his own volition.

Léger told the commission that his discomfort with Zampino's actions started even before he was formally hired by the city in 2006.

He testified that the general manager position at the city hadn’t been on his radar until he received a call from the mayor personally, on his cell phone.

He said he was flattered, and it sounded like his dream job.

“It was like someone in hockey being drafted by the Montreal Canadiens,” he said.

Léger said he was later contacted by a recruiting firm.

He recalled for the commission one aspect of his hiring that, in hindsight, he described as “uncomfortable.”

He said he got a call from Rosaire Sauriol of the engineering consulting firm Dessau, who Léger knew from his time working for the City of Longueuil, and Sauriol told him that Zampino wanted to have lunch to meet him.

Léger said the three men met at a restaurant and discussed Léger’s background and work in Longueuil.

After the meeting, Léger said, he felt uncomfortable, saying that the men may have been using “double language” to probe whether Léger had turned a blind eye or simply hadn’t noticed shady dealings in Longueuil during his time there.

“Would you call that naïve? That may be the image that you projected?” Commission chair France Charbonneau asked.

“I think yes,” Léger said. “They laughed at me in the phone conversations that were recorded and published in the newspapers. They didn’t tell me everything. They bypassed me. They used me.”

He said, looking back, the simple fact that an outside consultant was involved in the process of hiring a city manager should have raised flags.

However, he said, he still believed that Zampino had immense stature, which Léger respected, and was intelligent and strategic.

'Enormous pressure'

Léger said there was “enormous pressure” from the mayor and other elected officials to push through the water meter project shortly after he took up the post at the city.

While he said he had no proof, he believes the person behind that push was primarily Zampino.

That contract — the largest ever awarded by the city of Montreal — came under scrutiny in 2009 after Zampino admitted he had vacationed on the yacht owned by construction boss Tony Accurso.

Accurso’s firm was part of the consortium that won the bid for the multi-million dollar contract in 2007.

Last spring, Accurso and Zampino were arrested and charged with fraud-related offenses. They are both awaiting trial.

The water meter project involved the installation of meters to gauge water use at industrial and commercial locations and a second component that would have allowed the municipality to monitor and make remote changes to the waterworks.

Léger said there was intense pressure from elected officials to bring the project to tender and keep it all as one giant contract, rather than dividing it into two separate jobs.

“Because there was a lot of pressure, we didn’t have time to study the things in the time we should have,” he said. “Every time [assistant city manager Yves] Provost went before the executive committee for a presentation, the mayor would quip, ‘When are the water meters coming? What are you waiting for?’"

"It was a joke, but it was a joke in front of the other executive committee members.”

Léger said because the comment came from the mayor, it carried extra weight.

Léger said he heard Zampino tell Provost that he wanted the contract in place by the end of 2007. Because of the qualifications needed for the scale of the work, the pool of eligible bidders was small, Léger said.

In the end, it was a consortium called GENIeau, which included Accurso’s company, that submitted the winning bid.

The project went forward too quickly, and there were problems with the plan to finance it through the private sector, Léger said. Costs ballooned, and the $50 million initial cost estimate expanded to $355 million.

The project was suspended in the spring of 2009, after the conflict of interest allegations surfaced.

In the fall of that year, Tremblay announced that the plan had been scrapped and said that Léger and the city’s director of corporate affairs, Robert Cassisus de Linval, had been fired.

Tremblay later defended generous severance packages given to both men.

Collusion scheme well hidden

Léger told the commission that he never took bribes or gifts during his time at the city and even sent back bottles of wine from entrepreneurs who sent them to the office during the holidays.

He said he often had lunch at his desk working on files and was “surprised” to hear how frequently city bureaucrats said they were dining with construction bosses.

Léger addressed the issue of appointments to city selection committees and one person in particular, who has been the focous of earlier testimony before the commission.

Robert Marcil, the former head of the public works department, got glowing recommendations from elected officials, and Léger said his appointment had also been suggested by Zampino.

Léger said looking back, the process by which Marcil wound up on those committees perhaps should have been cause for concern.

However, at the time, Léger said his only worry was that Marcil would be influenced by elected officials who vouched for him as a good candidate. He said other people were appointed to the committees to give balance.

Engineer Michel Lalonde told the commission in February that Marcil asked him for payment to rig committee decisions. He told the commission he paid Marcil around $5,000 for each contract he fixed.

Marcil denied ever accepting cash to fix the bidding process and called Lalonde a liar when he testified before the commission last month.

Léger said he had no idea Marcil had the power to influence the selection process in the ways described by previous witnesses.

“I could not imagine there was a collusion scheme like the one presented by Michel Lalonde,” Léger told the commission. “I couldn’t imagine it was possible to have that many people in on a secret and have it work. “