06/13/2013 12:32 EDT | Updated 08/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Money talks at Quebec inquiry: Witness hands $720,000 to corruption probe

MONTREAL - The latest witness at Quebec's corruption inquiry showed up with more than just anecdotes to share.

In a vivid example of the old adage that money talks, the witness Thursday dumped more than $720,000 cash as evidence at the probe. The money stemmed from what he said were illegal political donations to Laval's long-ruling municipal party.

It was the largest stack of cash — although not the first — returned to the inquiry so far. The image of the stacks of cash in several vacuum-sealed packages was displayed on screens at the probe Thursday.

The massive sum was recently returned by witness Pierre L. Lambert, a lawyer who for six years oversaw the allegedly illegal cash reserves of the once-dominant, recently-dissolved, PRO des Lavallois party.

Lambert was one of the roughly three-dozen people arrested in a massive corruption sweep that ensnared former mayor Gilles Vaillancourt and saw him slapped with charges of fraud and gangsterism.

The party disbanded shortly after Vaillancourt's resignation and, three months ago, Lambert returned what was left in the coffers to the inquiry: $721,920.

Lambert testified that he was flattered to be offered such a prestigious job and gladly took it when, in 2006, he was approached by the party bagman to be custodian of the secret cash fund. They were looking for someone discreet, Lambert said, and he was looking for recognition.

The first exchange took place in June 2006 — with a sum of $200,000 taken out of the trunk of an engineering exec's car.

"It didn't feel illegal right then," Lambert said. He compared his state to someone who'd had one drink too many but didn't care.

"My moral compass was perhaps not the sharpest then."

Over the years, Lambert said he received about $2 million from an engineering executive who has already testified that he collected payments from companies involved in collusion.

Lambert said he would get calls from senior party officials when they needed money — in installments of $10,000 or $20,000, and sometimes as much as $100,000.

The money was kept in a storage locker and sometimes in his garage. He said he was custodian of the crooked cash until 2012, when the party ceased operations.

He said the illegal donations were still happening last fall, as the spotlight was intensifying at the corruption inquiry.

Lambert said he never took any cash for himself and just wanted to be of service. He said he gave money to the municipal party and to the then-governing provincial Liberals — about $10,000 in each case, but never in cash.

Lambert apologized to his family and asked for forgiveness from Laval residents.

"When we find a way to make ourselves feel important ... it's easier to lose our way and even our values," Lambert said.

"Our ego is our worst enemy."

Lambert was the latest witness while the inquiry remained focused on Laval, Que., a city just north of Montreal, where it has heard the companies paid a two-per-cent cut to the ruling municipal party.

Earlier Thursday, a provincial politician told the inquiry that he paid a steep personal price when he ran afoul of the controversial ex-mayor.

A one-time Liberal MNA said he became persona non-grata in Laval when he spoke publicly in 2010 about a cash-filled envelope he was allegedly offered by Vaillancourt.

Vincent Auclair said he was shunned at public events in the municipality. And he said he didn't get much support either from his provincial party, which never defended him publicly.

"Believe me, it cost me dearly," Auclair said.

"It was extremely hard. From one day to the next, in 2010, the day I confirmed that event, I became persona non-grata in Laval. There were plenty of events I contributed to and I was really... nobody wanted to see me.

"The message was out: Don't be seen with the (MNA) for Vimont."

A notary by training, he said his father's firm — Auclair and Chartrand — also lost all its contracts with the City of Laval in November 2010.

Vaillancourt has been accused of handing envelopes to several politicians, including federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair who says he turned down the offer.

The long-dominant mayor, who won six straight elections, recently resigned in scandal and has been slapped with a slew of corruption charges.

Auclair said his cash offer came in 2002. He spoke publicly about it eight years later, when controversies about Vaillancourt began appearing in the media.

However, when he went public, Auclair declared that he'd refused the envelope offer. He modified his story on the witness stand Thursday.

Auclair explained that he actually did accept the envelope, after resisting at first, and then quickly turned it over to a provincial Liberal party official and asked him to solve the problem.

Auclair was a three-term MNA in the Laval of Vimont. He did not seek re-election in 2012.

Montreal La Presse recently reported that Auclair and Mulcair discussed, in 2006, their respective encounters with the Laval mayor.

The inquiry is approaching a lengthy summer break, scheduled to begin next week.

-With files from Lia Levesque