POLITICS

Asphalt companies wooed Quebec transport officials with trips, dinners

05/28/2013 06:51 EDT | Updated 07/28/2013 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - Quebec's construction inquiry has heard that provincial bureaucrats were given gifts like fishing trips in order to get them to share privileged information about upcoming contracts.

The inquiry has already been told about rampant corruption of municipal officials but has only barely begun looking into activity at the provincial level.

It was told Tuesday that trips organized for Quebec Transport Department officials helped a Montreal road construction company reel in millions of dollars in contracts.

Gilles Theberge, a former director of Sintra Inc., told the Charbonneau Commission that regional directors of the Transport Department benefited from salmon-fishing trips as well as steak and oyster dinners where tips on upcoming contracts were obtained.

Asphalt companies were seeking to split up their territories, basing the dividing lines on the proximity of contracts to their plants, Theberge told the commission.

Theberge, who quit Sintra in 2000 after his car was bombed, said he was aware of collusion by companies in paving work but that didn't affect other construction projects run by the provincial ministry.

He said that his company courted mayors, regional transport officials and CEOs at dinners and recalled having lunch with officials from Montreal and several other smaller communities who told him about upcoming projects.

The information helped him to prepare his budget and he says it was passed on to other companies as well. He said it was all made public shortly after, in any event.

His testimony comes months after the inquiry heard that meals, hockey tickets, vacations and even prostitution services were offered to municipal bureaucrats around Montreal. This was in addition to illegal donations funnelled to municipal political parties.

Sintra is one of the dominant players in the asphalt sector and other work with the Transport Department, snagging at least $1.6 billion in contracts between 1997 and 2012, according to figures tabled by the inquiry.

It was followed in importance by DJL, which took in $1 billion, said Claudine Roy, a commission lawyer.

"We see that 50 per cent of these contracts is distributed to about 19 companies," Roy said. "Sintra got about a quarter of the contracts offered by the Transport Department."

Sintra got about $863 million of its total for paving work, followed by DJL, which got $518 million.

Theberge acknowledged that the Transport Department was Sintra's biggest customer, accounting for 60 per cent of its revenue.

He said the collusion did not explain a stunning increase in the price of asphalt in 2000.

The City of Montreal was hit with an 80 per cent increase in asphalt prices that year, with asphalt provided by Sintra, DJL and Simard-Beaudry costing the city $4.7 million.

A memorandum presented to the commission noted that there had been a "significant decrease" in the cost of asphalt in 1998 and tenders in 1999 reflect that. Tenders solicited in January 2000 reflects the increase from 1999.

He said the first meeting of the asphalt cartel he'd described only occurred in 2000.