02/07/2013 11:44 EST | Updated 04/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Quebec corruption inquiry shifts focus to provincial party financing

MONTREAL - Quebec's corruption inquiry begins a 10-day break from public hearings just as it turns its flashlight toward the shadowy corners of provincial politics.

A construction boss was grilled Thursday over his donations to the province's political parties, and his ties to a provincial cabinet minister who resigned in disgrace and now faces fraud charges.

With his appearance on the witness stand winding down, Joe Borsellino is slated to be cross-examined by various lawyers including those who represent different political parties.

That sets the stage for the probe to shift its attention to a higher level of government, after focusing mainly on corruption in municipal politics around Montreal.

However, the conclusion of Borsellino's testimony will have to wait. The inquiry is taking one of its scheduled pauses from hearings, and will not convene again in public until Feb. 18.

Before the break Borsellino, the head of Garnier Construction, testified that attending political fundraisers was necessary for people working in the construction industry.

Borsellino said he gave generously to municipal and political parties of all stripes, but never expected contracts in return. He contributed to the provincial Liberals, and to a lesser extent the Parti Quebecois, along with municipal parties in Montreal.

Testifying for a fourth day, he said the fundraising cocktails were a great way to meet different people — engineering-firm executives, land developers, accountants and law firms were all present, he said.

"The whole idea was sold to us (as), 'The engineers are here, the lawyers are here, it's a good thing,'" said Borsellino.

"But in reality, it was a political party's business model."

Borsellino said his contributions were always made by cheque, never with cash, though he admitted he may have reimbursed people outside his family for donations they made on one or two occasions.

It is illegal to funnel donations through third parties in order to hide contributions that exceed the limits. The question of whether companies used such schemes to illegally pump cash into political parties, and whether they received benefits in return, is central to the inquiry.

Borsellino was vague when asked the inevitable followup question: In what way was it useful to deal with political parties?

He was asked repeatedly by commission lawyers what the political parties could do for him and he offered vague replies — that it was good to be seen attending such events, and being able to network was also good for business.

Attending political events could help cultivate sources at engineering firms, to help with problems on job sites or legal issues, he said.

"By being present, by being a contributor, I felt it was good for business," Borsellino said.

"It's a business decision that we took that we support political parties. It's a right that we have and we did that."

He denied that he ever sought favours or offered kickbacks. He defended his donations.

"Where I give the most is in charitable organizations," Borsellino said. Media reports in Quebec are now combing through donations to his charity.

"I'm a giving person. I've given to political parties, I've given to hospitals, too."

Borsellino said he no longer attends cocktails today because he came to the conclusion that it's not "ethically correct."

He said the requests for political donations dried up around 2007 or 2008. Around that time, scandals related to construction and political financing began sprouting up in the province. Other witnesses at the inquiry have previously stated that the increased scrutiny changed people's behaviour.

Borsellino said there should have been a "law in the 1800s" preventing anyone working with the government, or their relatives, from contributing to political parties.

"We don't (contribute anymore) because we think we're in conflict," Borsellino said. "Because we are working for a government contract and the political parties were probably using us to collect their funds."

Borsellino said he once gave a $10,000 donation to the ruling Union Montreal party in 2004 through a previous witness, Martin Dumont. The money was apparently given to support a campaign to stop demergers, even though Borsellino himself was in favour of demerging.

When the questions turned to ex-Liberal cabinet minister Tony Tomassi, Borsellino's answers became more difficult to decipher.

Borsellino couldn't elaborate on what "small thing" he'd once claimed to have done for Tomassi, in a statement caught on a police wiretap. Investigators had recorded him making the claim while keeping tabs on a former union leader, Quebec Federation of Labour construction wing boss Jocelyn Dupuis.

"I was very happy for my friend becoming a minister — and from the Italian community," Borsellino explained Thursday, adding that he spent three days with Tomassi celebrating his nomination.

"That was the conversation I had with a third party."

Tomassi, a former family minister, was plagued by allegations of improperly doling out contracts for publicly subsidized daycare licences. He later resigned in scandal, over use of a credit card allegedly supplied to him by a private security company, and he now faces fraud charges.

Borsellino was also overheard on a wiretap discussing a call Tomassi allegedly got from controversial construction magnate Tony Accurso and another union leader, Michel Arsenault.

In another conversation with Dupuis, he spoke about Tomassi being invited on a boat by Accurso before he was named minister.

Forced to explain the claim, Borsellino said he might have made up the part about the boat.

That answer was emblematic of Borsellino's entire appearance on the witness stand, which has seen its share of logical gymnastics and linguistic flip-flops between French and English.

"I'm talking in a language here between me and Mr. Dupuis. I said 'bateau,'" he said, referring to the French word for "boat."

"Does it mean it's a 'bateau?' It could have been inviting him to lunch," said Borsellino, offering a less-than-clear explanation.

His testimony has proved so frustrating at times that the normally unflappable commission head, Justice France Charbonneau, has taken to mocking his credibility.

At one point, when Borsellino said he was at a loss for words, Charbonneau replied, "So am I."

When he blamed the fact that he was rushing to get out of a conversation for his choice of words caught in one wiretap, she replied: "You know what I think you're trying to get out of? This conversation (on the witness stand) — not that one."

Borsellino did not meet with inquiry investigators before testifying and has made them chase each detail out of him, confirming some only after being presented with evidence.

He appeared to take offense at the judge's skepticism.

"With all respect, that's not true," he countered.

"I've been here four days and I've put a lot of energy to be here... I'm happy to be here 'til it's over. I've told the truth up to now and I'm trying to turn to the rest of my life with this."