04/17/2013 11:00 EDT | Updated 06/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Montreal's former No. 2 probed about Mob during testimony at corruption inquest

MONTREAL - A former high-ranking Montreal politician alleged to have been a key figure in city hall corruption has dismissed the notion he has ties to the upper echelons of the Italian Mafia.

Frank Zampino's long-awaited appearance before Quebec's corruption inquiry began Wednesday and saw him grilled about his attendance at the wedding of a mobster's son in July 1991.

Zampino acknowledged that, in hindsight, going to the wedding of Frank Cotroni's son and Joe Di Maulo's daughter was perhaps not the best idea.

"It wasn't the most brilliant decision of the century to go to the marriage, but I'm telling you I had no ulterior motive," said the man who served as former mayor Gerald Tremblay's right-hand man for several years until 2008.

"Perceptions are worth more than facts in politics."

Zampino has frequently been mentioned at the inquiry as being close to various players involved in corruption.

The former head of the city's powerful executive committee is currently charged with fraud stemming from a 2008 land deal involving city-owned property that was sold to a developer.

Zampino said he was invited to attend the wedding by a Di Maulo family member, Mario Di Maulo, a political organizer.

He added he didn't know Joe Di Maulo, who was killed in his driveway near Montreal last November.

Di Maulo was described as a middleman between the Cotroni and Rizzuto clans and kept a low profile while having ties to the rival groups.

As for Zampino, he was acquainted with another brother, Jimmy Di Maulo, but insisted at the time he was unaware of the family's Mafia links.

Zampino said he didn't know Cotroni well. Both Cotroni and Di Maulo were central figures during another public inquiry in the 1970s into organized crime.

"I knew Mr. Cotroni from the newspapers like other Quebecers," Zampino told the Charbonneau Commission. "I didn't know him personally."

Zampino also denied knowing Vito Rizzuto, the man considered to be in charge of the Mafia in Montreal following the demise of the Cotroni family.

The inquiry indicated it was in possession of a photo of Zampino and Rizzuto together, but Zampino said he wasn't sure whether any such photo was ever taken.

His first day of testimony often took on a testy tone. Zampino told the probe he took offence to the suggestion he was tied to the Mafia based on his participation at the wedding. He said he attended the marriage in good faith and without other designs.

As mayor of the largely Italian suburb of Saint-Leonard, he was invited to as many 50 weddings a year. But Zampino said he didn't dig up the background of those inviting him.

"I often was invited to weddings, it was part of the culture," said Zampino, adding he refused the majority of invites.

"If I accepted to go to all of those weddings, I'd be divorced.''

The longtime municipal stalwart also took issue with an allegation he exerted huge influence at city hall, particularly in the awarding of contracts.

One witness, Rosaire Sauriol of the engineering firm Dessau, previously described Zampino as ''the most powerful man in Montreal.''

Inquiry witnesses have described how companies inflated the cost of public projects and divided up the extra cash among the Mafia, corrupt bureaucrats and Union Montreal, Zampino's old party.

But Zampino maintained he wasn't involved at all in political party financing and he disputed there was a two-headed administration at city hall. Witnesses have testified Zampino was in charge while Tremblay was largely left in the dark.

Earlier on Wednesday, Zampino, a chartered accountant, said he got into politics in 1986 purely by chance after being approached to run as a councillor.

In 1990, he became mayor of Saint-Leonard. He was then acclaimed in 1994 and 1998.

He ended up spending 22 years in municipal politics in Montreal and Saint-Leonard.

He became involved in Montreal politics in 2001, when the province merged small cities into a megacity. Zampino says he wasn't in favour, but didn't want to be left on the outside looking in.

That's when he decided to get onboard with Tremblay, who had ambitions of becoming mayor of Montreal and wanted Zampino, who was respected among other suburban mayors.

Zampino said he was proud of his time with the city and said he left it in better financial condition than when he started.

When the questions briefly turned to electoral financing, Zampino said he was unaware of the existence of "turn-key" elections when he started in politics. He said he learned of them through the papers.

So-called "turn-key" elections occur when companies provide everything and candidates step right into their privately financed campaign operation in exchange for post-election favours for the firms.

The witness before Zampino, ex-party fundraiser Bernard Trepanier, said that type of election financing was the norm.

Trepanier and Zampino are close friends.

Zampino downplayed, however, the number of calls between phone numbers belonging to the two men. The inquiry put the number at 1,800 over a four-year span.

Zampino countered that closer to 200 was more accurate and not out of the ordinary considering their friendship.

"Saying he called me 1,800 times is fundamentally dishonest," Zampino said.

His testimony continues on Thursday.

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