Gilles Cloutier returned to the inquiry Monday with a message: that although he had testified about owning a summer cottage in Quebec's Charlevoix region he was, in fact, just renting it.
That admission about a seemingly minor detail was seized upon by lawyers during cross-examination — and they used it to pound away at Cloutier's credibility.
The episode is not the first example where an important witness has recanted bits of testimony at the inquiry, and cast doubt on the truth of other claims.
Cloutier had made waves at the inquiry with an insider's account of how the construction industry used its political connections to manipulate the procurement process, and even rig municipal elections.
He has implicated a sitting Quebec judge and a former Parti Quebecois stalwart during his testimony. He also described how he used celebrities, including hockey greats, to help drum up municipal contracts.
As the probe resumed after a one-week break, Cloutier admitted Monday that he had lied about owning the house where public servants were entertained by Roche, an engineering firm.
Cloutier, 73, said he was "saddened" and felt "a lot of guilt" about lying to the inquiry. While investigators came to see him about the discrepancy last week, Cloutier said he would have been ready to set the record straight, even if he hadn't been approached.
Cloutier had always told those close to him that he owned the house.
"I did it out of pride. I told everyone that I was the owner when I was not," Cloutier said Monday.
After some of his testimony had embarrassed the PQ, a lawyer representing the governing party seized on Monday's admission to launch a sustained attack on his credibility.
Estelle Tremblay noted that Cloutier not only lied about owning the home, but also about fictitious real-estate transactions involving the property.
Tremblay pointed out that he told the inquiry he'd purchased the home for $200,000, with his own money, and subsequently resold it for $400,000 — all lies, Cloutier said Monday.
"Do you realize you perjured yourself?” Tremblay asked in a tense exchange.
"Maybe not perjury," Cloutier said, fumbling for an explanation.
"I lied," he added.
But he was standing by everything else in his testimony: "I have reviewed all my testimony . . . and everything I said is true and I swear it."
Tremblay wondered what else Cloutier might have gotten wrong. She asked about a fundraiser he supposedly organized in 2001 for a PQ candidate, where 15 executives allegedly paid $1,000 a head for a chance to chat with then-transport minister Guy Chevrette.
Tremblay said that nowhere in the PQ's accounting for that year, or in provincial election records, was there any indication such an event had taken place.
Under fire, Cloutier insisted the rest of his testimony had been accurate, even providing details of that fundraiser at a Best Western hotel in St-Jerome, north of Montreal.
Tremblay asked if Cloutier, suffering from an unspecified illness and requiring medication, might be having memory problems.
"I am very sick," he replied, "but it does not affect my memory."
She also quizzed Cloutier about his account of a $100,000 payment to a friend of Chevrette's for access to the minister. Cloutier had said that after the payment was made to the friend, he got help winning a lucrative municipal contract — and he stuck to that story Monday.
Lawyers for Chevrette and the friend, Gilles Beaulieu, are asking the inquiry for the right to cross-examine Cloutier too. Later Monday, Chevrette's lawyer announced they'll ask to have his appearance before the inquiry to be fast-tracked.
Cloutier is not the first high-profile witness to recant details from his testimony.
Martin Dumont, whose testimony helped bring down the mayor of Montreal, has also admitted to making up an anecdote.
But, as with Cloutier, he stuck to the rest of his story.
A lawyer representing the province's road-builders, Denis Houle, wondered if Cloutier was trying to settle scores by naming names at the inquiry.
It was an assertion that Cloutier flatly denied.
Cloutier was a longtime political organizer who worked in business development for major Quebec engineering firms Roche and Dessau.
Cloutier’s political involvement began with Maurice Duplessis' now-defunct Union Nationale party and carried on with the Liberals through the just-concluded Charest era.
The corruption inquiry is expected to turn its attention next to the scandal-plagued municipality of Laval once Cloutier's testimony ends.