04/22/2013 11:44 EDT | Updated 06/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Montreal ex-No. 2: Getting gifts was OK, if it didn't influence decisions

MONTREAL - The City of Montreal's former No. 2 admits he accepted gifts from businessmen and says there's nothing wrong with that as long as no rules are broken.

Frank Zampino, on the stand for a third day at Quebec's corruption inquiry, once served directly under the mayor and is the highest-ranking politician to testify at the probe so far.

He said Monday that it's not a problem if he and several local bureaucrats accepted gifts like hockey tickets and golf games if the rules were followed when it came to city business.

The former right-hand man to ex-mayor Gerald Tremblay said during Monday's testimony that what mattered was to resist being influenced and to avoid favouring certain contractors.

Zampino said he had no idea what misdeeds were going on in the lower ranks and said the system of collusion at city hall, described by previous inquiry witnesses, came as news to him.

He testifed Monday that the level of alleged collusion was "extremely troubling" but he continued to say that he and other elected officials were unaware.

"I wasn't blind," Zampino said, adding that he would have intervened if he'd had an inkling of wrongdoing.

"It infuriates me to have learned everything now. I'm outraged."

He said that if word had gotten to the mayor or himself, the collusion would have stopped immediately. He said if he'd been aware, he would have had the city manager look into the matter.

The inquiry has heard that companies inflated the cost of public projects and that the extra cash was divided between the Mafia, corrupt bureaucrats and Union Montreal, Zampino's old party. Some witnesses have denied the existence of such a structured scheme.

In separate criminal proceedings, Zampino faces a number of criminal charges — including fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust stemming from a City of Montreal land deal.

Central to the alleged collusion system were the trips, gifts and cash paid out to city workers, previous witnesses have testified.

Zampino admitted that he also got wine at Christmas — but from engineering and law firms, and rarely if ever from contractors. He says it had no impact on the decisions he made.

Zampino defended having had lunch with construction company executives, saying that they were regular meals and did not have any influence on decisions ultimately made by the city.

That prompted an interjection from inquiry chair France Charbonneau. She reminded the witness that the appearance of a conflict of interest doesn't mean the rules have to be bent — it can simply apply to close ties between individuals with a business relationship.

Asked if Zampino or the city's top decision-making body were ever told about "potential" collusion, he said there was some awareness of costs being much higher in Montreal compared to other places, but there was no explicit knowledge.

He said word of schemes never reached the level of the city's powerful executive committee, over which he presided between 2002 and 2008.

"I repeat: we were never made aware and never saw any red flags," Zampino said.

Also Monday, Zampino said engineering firms trading in priviliged information and sharing contracts among themselves didn't need his help.

Zampino pointed the blame at the firms themsleves and denied being a source of information for the collusion.

The ruling party's chief fundraiser, Bernard Trepanier, a Zampino confidant, has admitted to passing information about upcoming contracts to firms and has admitted to openly favouring those firms that donated to his Union Montreal party.

Zampino said he only found out about Trepanier's "philosophy" on contracts while listening to the latter testify last week.

Zampino suggested that he would have been a useless cog in the process because, despite his high-ranking position, he did not have access to information.

"I had no priviliged information to give," Zampino said. "The only people with access to that information are the civil servants."

Some witnesses have implicated Zampino himself as having had a hand in the decision-making for divvying up contracts. Zampino denied it.

"So if it wasn't you giving priviliged information to Trepanier, who was it?" asked Renaud Lachance, the inquiry's co-commissioner. "I don't know," Zampino replied, pointing the finger subsequently at a former public works director.

Zampino's testimony continues through this week.