Bernard Trepanier told Quebec's corruption inquiry on Wednesday that he never took money from construction companies in exchange for access to lucrative city contracts.
So what did he do for the Union Montreal party to earn his salary of $82,000 a year?
"I sold tables," Trepanier answered dryly, referring to seats at fundraising events.
A former federal aide with the now-defunct Progressive Conservative party before he entered municipal politics, Trepanier has had his name bandied about by several businessmen who have testified that he demanded cash during election campaigns — along with a cut of city contracts.
His lawyer has complained that Trepanier's right to a fair trial, as he awaits fraud charges stemming from a land deal, could be compromised by the damage to his reputation sustained at the inquiry.
Trepanier is now fighting back, with the 74-year-old former Union Montreal fundraiser Wednesday accusing some witnesses of lying about the money he was collecting.
In testimony that was sometimes rambling and confusing, he admitted in one breath that engineering firms that contributed to the party got contracts. In another breath, however, he denied collecting cash from engineering firms and said donations came from cheques 95 per cent of the time.
When asked about his side business as a lobbyist, and why he got $45,000 one year from a certain engineering firm, he explained that it was partly payment for a "personal" service: he, a recovering alcoholic, had helped a company official kick the habit, too.
He said he had no idea about any cartel being run by construction companies.
At the same time, he admitted that he used to ensure that public contracts were being divvied up between companies to make sure they all got their rightful slice of the pie.
"I tried to make it fair and equitable for everyone," Trepanier said. "I did not get anything, it gave me the satisfaction of having returned the favor to those who helped us."
Then, in 2005, Trepanier said he was summoned to a meeting where he was told that engineering firms would be dividing up the contracts among themselves.
Friends of the party would continue to be favoured and firms that donated would get the contracts. There were problems, he said, when firms outside that group also bid.
But, to Trepanier, that wasn't collusion.
Asked by the inquiry why he was the go-between — and not the mayor, Trepanier was blunt: "The fewer contractors at city hall, the better."
He hasn't directly addressed the unflattering nickname he's earned in media reports during the inquiry, but Trepanier was adamant that he never took any percentage on behalf of the party.
Trepanier said it would have been impossible, because the dollars amounts would have far exceeded what the Union Montreal party ever spent.
Another inquiry witness this week, ex-party agent Marc Deschamps, said Union Montreal never saw any of those alleged illegal commissions.
Trepanier's testimony contradicts a parade of witnesses the inquiry has heard in recent weeks and months — including engineering firm executives who said they paid big money to ensure they had access to contracts.
Since Monday alone, three engineering executives who have testified have quit their jobs.
Trepanier says he was close to many of the biggest construction bosses in Quebec and also had contacts at just about every major engineering firm.
He earned the unflattering nickname "Mr. Three Per Cent" over recent months as other witnesses described a cartel system where companies inflated the cost of public projects and split percentages with the Mafia, corrupt bureaucrats and Trepanier's party.
Trepanier said he didn't do any fundraising prior to that job. But when he arrived in Montreal municipal politics in 2001, he said, a culture already existed where contractors were hit up for party donations.
"I didn't create (a system) — it was already in place," Trepanier said.
"When you accept a post, it's to do a job. I did my job."
Trepanier admitted he solicited construction companies and engineering firms for funds, and he worked off a list of those that won contracts.
He even says he requested a $200,000 donation from bigger engineering firms and a $100,000 one from smaller ones before an election in 2005. It has been illegal since 1977 in Quebec to accept political donations from companies, or from individuals beyond a certain amount.
But those sums, Trepanier said Wednesday, were spread out over the years and were not used for just one election.
Trepanier said his official job with Union Montreal ended in 2006 — but he denied that he had been let go after an alleged extortion attempt involving a shopping centre developer.
Trepanier said he continued to work for the party until 2008, but had no interest in working full-time anymore and didn't work on the 2009 election campaign.
While he continued to raise funds, he took on private contracts with engineering and communications firms through a consulting company he founded called Bermax.
Gallant described Trepanier's work as being a "middleman" between construction companies, engineering firms and municipalities.
Trepanier said he didn't have a problem with that description.
But he didn't agree with Gallant's next comment.
"I'll also be suggesting later that you were a bagman," Gallant told Trepanier.
He frowned as he heard the term.
"That's a big word," Trepanier replied. He said he only did fundraising from 2004 until 2008, and worked in other capacities outside that period.
Provincial political parties are now promising to repay the money they raised illegally.
Also, the City of Montreal has announced it will be seeking about $1.1 million from three former employees who have admitted to accepting cash from construction companies.
Mayor Michael Applebaum said Wednesday that the city will file grievances — what he describes as a first step in recouping more than $500,000 each from disgraced engineers Gilles Surprenant and Luc Leclerc, as well as an additional $50,000 from Francois Theriault.
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