04/18/2013 11:25 EDT | Updated 06/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Ex-Montreal No. 2 says he never knew of collusion in awarding city contracts

MONTREAL - A man who was one of Montreal's most powerful politicians told Quebec's corruption inquiry on Thursday that he was completely unaware of collusion in the awarding of contracts in the city.

Frank Zampino, the former chair of the Montreal executive committee, said he never heard of such schemes even as evidence was presented that showed Zampino was in touch with many of the people alleged to be central actors.

During a second day on the stand, Zampino admitted after some hesitation that he, and other elected officials, discussed in 2002 and 2003 that construction projects in the City of Montreal cost as much as 20 per cent more than elsewhere in the province.

To date, Quebec's corruption inquiry has heard that companies inflated the cost of public projects and the extra cash was divided between the Mafia, corrupt bureaucrats and Union Montreal, Zampino's old party.

Engineering-firm executives have testified that they were part of a widespread system of collusion where donations to the party translated into city contracts.

One of those executives, a former vice-president at Dessau, has even called Zampino the most powerful man in Montreal.

Zampino, for his part, has had his name mentioned by several witnesses at the inquiry. He also appeared in photographs at a birthday party, submitted as evidence, with some of these same engineering executives.

But the ex-municipal politician of 22 years said it wasn't until Quebec's corruption inquiry that he'd heard of collusion schemes.

"Never," said Zampino, who left his job at the city in 2008.

Confronted with testimony about a project that he was allegedly involved in, Zampino maintained that he never interfered in the awarding of contracts or any construction projects.

The former head of the city's executive body is currently facing charges of fraud, conspiracy, and breach of trust stemming from a 2008 land deal involving city-owned property that was sold to a developer.

Zampino, 53, explained away his presence at various events that included engineering executives by saying they were fundraisers where the party requested his presence.

Questioned about a get-together in April 2007 with engineering bigwigs and Line Beauchamp, then the provincial minister in charge of Montreal, Zampino called it a simple meeting to discuss challenges facing the city.

The event was held at an exclusive Montreal club, 357C.

Zampino couldn't explain the presence of Bernard Trepanier, a party fundraising official with no engineering experience and who wasn't elected. Trepanier has been dubbed "Mr. Three Per Cent" in media reports — although he denies ever having claimed a commission on public contracts.

The inquiry is waiting to hear from Zampino's ex-boss — Tremblay — who resigned last fall amid controversy over allegations made at the inquiry.

There have been musings Tremblay might be the next witness, but an inquiry spokesman hasn't confirmed his appearance.

Zampino's interaction with inquiry lawyers has been testy.

At one point, while the inquiry examined his city-issued electronic agenda, Zampino said he doubted the veracity of the entries and he floated the idea that they might have been tampered with.

An irritated commission chair France Charbonneau assured him the agenda was being presented as received by the inquiry.

Zampino often referred to himself in the third person. In preparing for his appearance, Zampino did not meet with inquiry officials, and he was accompanied by three lawyers Thursday.

"Who's Mr. Zampino? Are you talking about yourself?" asked inquiry counsel Sonia LeBel, to which Zampino replied "yes" before continuing to answer in the third person.

At another point, Charbonneau cut Zampino off.

"Not four times with the same answers," Charbonneau snapped. Zampino's answers have appeared carefully planned out, with the same lengthy responses repeated over and over again.

LeBel also tried to get Zampino to answer questions more directly.

"I'm not asking you for your analysis, Mr. Zampino," she told him. "I'm asking you to answer my questions."

Zampino returns to the stand on Monday.