MONTREAL - A man accused of being a gatekeeper to the Mafia offered a few glimpses Wednesday into an ancient moral code — one where the men kept secrets, and the women kept quiet.
Testifying at Quebec's corruption inquiry, retired construction boss Nicolo Milioto shared some details about the gender roles he was accustomed to.
He said his wife was aware that he had a friendship with Nick Rizzuto Sr. — and she even accompanied him once to the old Mafia don's house.
But they didn't discuss his line of work.
"My wife, like a good Italian, didn't ask any questions," Milioto, 64, told the inquiry.
He said his meetings with Rizzuto mostly involved card games and innocent encounters over espresso at the Cafe Consenza, the now-shuttered Mafia hangout.
In fact, he said, anybody could have met Rizzuto there.
Well, not quite everyone.
Women weren't welcome in that east-end Montreal shop.
"The bars for Italians, it's like taverns for the Quebecois," Milioto explained, using a reference to a long-ago era when women were not allowed in men's taverns.
This particular coffee-bar closed in 2006.
Milioto was seen by police 236 times entering that old boys' hangout, and police suveillance video showed him exchanging stacks of cash with the since-murdered Rizzuto.
Testimony at the inquiry has described Milioto as the central player in a wheel of corruption — one who linked construction companies, the Mafia, and a municipal political party.
But he says he was just handing Rizzuto cash collected from fundraisers for community events, or for a loan repayment, or as a middleman on behalf of fellow construction boss Lino Zambito.
Zambito was the witness whose testimony broke open the inquiry last fall, when he laid out an elaborate scheme that enriched participants and milked taxpayers. Zambito was among those to describe Milioto as a central figure in a cartel, with that testimony making him a household name in Quebec and earning him an appearance on a popular talk show.
Milioto's testimony has been nothing like that.
In fact, he has repeated more than once that he doesn't even know what the Mafia really is.
He says he'd never heard of the so-called "pizzo" — protection money — being paid to mobsters in this country.
At one point he drew a wry response from the judge presiding over the inquiry when he did admit to being aware of another term from the Mafia lexicon — that of "omerta." The code of silence.
"So that, you know,'' Justice France Charbonneau said dryly, earlier this week.
In Milioto's third day on the stand, commissioner Renaud Lachance asked him Wednesday if he was seen as an entry point into the Mafia's upper leadership.
Milioto said a middleman was unnecessary.
"You could have gone there (to Cafe Consenza), had a coffee with them, they wouldn't have kicked you out," he said.
He added that he was only being dragged into the inquiry because of his frequent cafe visits.
"I am the weakest link for this commission," he said.
Milioto has told the inquiry that he has no ties to organized crime and didn't collect a Mafia tax on behalf of the Rizzuto clan.
On Wednesday, he added that there was no bid-rigging system in the sidewalk business, his area of expertise.
A previous witness said Milioto once jokingly referred to himself as "Mr. Sidewalk," and threatened to bury him in concrete if he interfered with the system.
He has denied such allegations on the stand.
"I never colluded in 23 years," Milioto said Wednesday in the face of repeated questions.
That statement not only contradicts the testimony of a number of witnesses who have said that sidewalks were subject to the same collusion as other sectors in Montreal.
It also belies the claim, presented Wednesday, that sidewalk companies dwindled from more than four dozen to just a handful that got public contracts in Montreal over 15 years — all of them Sicilian-owned, with bosses hailing from the village of Cattolica Eraclea.
Less than 5,000 people live in that Italian town, whose descendents gained a stranglehold on major parts of Montreal's construction industry.
Phone records show that Milioto received hundreds of calls from those other sidewalk-builders over the years — with one calling 691 times between 2003 and 2009.
All frequented Cafe Consenza.
Milioto replied that if only a handful of companies got those contracts, it was because they were more competitive. As for the fact that Italian immigrants got involved with concrete, he said, it was a trade they happened to know well.
The man now known in Quebec as "Mr. Sidewalk" said he has come to regret delivering and collecting money for a reputed Mafia kingpin.
But he said he has no qualms about his friendship with the elder Rizzuto, who was shot dead by a sniper while in his kitchen in 2010.
"For me, they were just like other people — other paisans," Milioto said.
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