POLITICS

Montreal's former No. 2 was courted to run for top job in the city, but declined

04/24/2013 01:30 EDT | Updated 06/24/2013 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - As Quebec's corruption inquiry awaits to hear from ex-Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay, his former right-hand man explained he never wanted the top job in his final day on the stand.

Frank Zampino said Thursday that he was summoned to a "political sounding board" and encouraged by his own entourage in 2007 to consider a run for mayor but wasn't interested.

The group he met with included Bernard Trepanier, a Union Montreal party fundraiser, and engineering executive Rosaire Sauriol, who pushed for Zampino to consider a run.

Questioned by commission head France Charbonneau whether it was ethical for him to be discussing the city's future with an engineering boss and not the mayor, Zampino said he'd always been loyal to Tremblay.

"I told them there was a very good chance I would not be around in 2009 (for that year's election) regardless of what Mayor Tremblay was going to do," Zampino said. "There were people who were troubled by that."

Zampino spent part of his fifth and final day on the stand insisting he knew nothing about collusion involving contracts at the City of Montreal.

The longtime politician was asked to explain why he left city hall in 2008. Zampino called it a family decision and said he wanted to try his hand at the private sector after 22 years in politics.

Within days of his retirement, he apparently received multiple job offers from various firms before accepting one from engineering firm Dessau.

Some of the firms that he described as having offered him work had previously received contracts from the City of Montreal during his tenure.

Former Dessau executive Rosaire Sauriol recently testified that Zampino was the most powerful man in the city and that he was aware Sauriol was making cash payments to Union Montreal, Zampino's political party.

The inquiry has heard that companies inflated the cost of public projects and the extra cash was shared with the Mafia, corrupt bureaucrats and Union Montreal.

Some witnesses, including Zampino, have denied the existence of such a structured scheme. But others, including senior engineering executives, have admitted they colluded.

It led to a question about why all these firms were lining up to hire Zampino.

"Can we not consider that those job offers were part of an arrangement given the testimony we've heard before the commission?" asked senior counsel Sonia LeBel.

Zampino said he was "outraged" by the suggestion the Dessau job was his reward for helping to orchestrate a corrupt contract system in Montreal.

"Not at all, not at all. And I take offense," Zampino said. "You say the firms involved me, but it was based on hearsay."

Zampino added that he would not have received job offers had people thought he was corrupt. His time at Dessau was short lived, lasting about four months.

It came to an abrupt end after reports surfaced about Zampino taking vacations on the yacht of a construction magnate, Tony Accurso. Zampino said he left voluntarily to avoid bringing a media storm on the company, but Sauriol has testified that Zampino's arrival caused strife in the company.

The inquiry counsel deposited photos on Wednesday of Zampino and Accurso on holiday together with former city manager Robert Abdallah. The photos were from 2006 — from a February trip to the Grand Canyon and a September trip to Las Vegas.

Zampino had earlier said he didn't remember the trip, but faced with the photos had to admit he had been on them.

Zampino also vehemently denied a claim made by a previous witness, Elio Pagliarulo, that $200,000 worth of renovations had been done to his kitchen.

Pagliarulo, a former construction company employee, testified last fall about the corruption, Mafia ties and bid-rigging he witnessed and participated in during his days working with the Catania construction empire.

"I have not, since I bought my house in 2003, changed a door handle, changed a shelf, it's still the same kitchen as was there when I bought it," said Zampino. "And never, never, never, never did Paolo Catania pay a cent for my kitchen, or any other renovation.

"This (allegation) is completely false."

Zampino is facing a number of criminal charges including fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust stemming from a City of Montreal land deal. Much of the afternoon testimony was about that, and was subject to a publication ban to avoid affecting his case.

He is the highest-ranking political figure to testify so far at the inquiry, although he will upstaged by Tremblay — a three-term mayor who stepped down last November after testimony at the inquiry.

Tremblay wanted to testify before the inquiry last fall to counter allegations he was aware of illegal party financing, but the inquiry had a different schedule.

Tremblay's testimony is slated to begin Thursday morning.