In the opening moments of testimony expected to last days, the Quebec political bagman known as Mr. Three Per Cent described a vast system of municipal politics that for decades brushed aside laws of political finance and ethical conduct.
Bernard Trépanier, a political fundraiser who cut his teeth helping elect a Progressive Conservative MP in the Brian Mulroney era, told Quebec's corruption inquiry that even strict political financing laws brought in to the province nearly 40 years ago did nothing to clean up municipal politics.
Mr. Trépanier admitted he was paid illegally to organize turnkey elections in a long list of municipalities surrounding Montreal from the 1980s into the 2000s. Those races didn't require his fundraising skills, he said. They were already bought and paid for by engineering and law firms looking for city business.
In the first 10 years of this century, even as he was head fundraiser for Union Montréal, the party in power in the city, Mr. Trépanier collected nearly $1-million to act as an unregistered lobbyist for engineering firm Dessau.
He said part of his job was to link Dessau with a contact inside Montreal's airport authority, but an hour of questioning did little to clarify what Mr. Trépanier did, exactly.
"I was a guy who opened doors," Mr. Trépanier said. "I helped people get from point A to point B with my contacts."
Asked if he'd ever seen the strict campaign financing laws brought in by René Lévesque applied to the real world of municipal politics, he answered: "I never saw it with my own eyes."
Mr. Trépanier was a whirlwind of political organizing over three decades, a man who was known to make hundreds of calls a day in his efforts to organize workers and raise funds.
He said he started out as a volunteer for the federal Progressive Conservatives, helping elect MP Claude Lanthier in LaSalle in 1984. He moved to Ottawa and worked as a staffer for a series of cabinet ministers, including Benoît Bouchard, Suzanne Blais-Grenier, André Bissonette and Monique Vézina.
Mr. Trépanier left Ottawa in 1987 but worked in Quebec on Kim Campbell's PC leadership campaign in 1993.
The commission's mandate does not include investigating the federal scene. Inquiry head France Charbonneau has allowed few forays into federal matters.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Trépanier began to concentrate on the municipal world, where he said he was a "volunteer," usually paid, in campaigns in Laval, Boisbriand, Longueuil, Saint-Jérôme and other Montreal suburbs before he moved to the city and became chief fundraiser of then-mayor Gérald Tremblay's party in 2004.
There was one campaign he refused to be paid for, however: The 2001 mayorality campaign in the Montreal borough of Saint-Léonard, where his friend, Frank Zampino, was elected. "Never!" Mr. Trépanier said. "A friend's a friend."
That friend was a key figure, along with Mr. Trépanier, in a series of deals worth tens of millions of dollars and now the subject of criminal process and investigation. In one example, the two men await trial on criminal charges, including fraud, corruption, breach of trust and conspiracy on a land deal in Montreal's east end.
Through months of testimony, Mr. Trépanier has been described as the mastermind behind a system that skimmed millions of dollars off Montreal construction contracts for illegal cash financing of Union Montréal, the party that controlled city hall for most of the 2000s.
Just this week, a former Union Montréal official agent, Marc Deschamps, suggested Mr. Trépanier pocketed the millions of dollars he skimmed off construction contracts over about a decade. Mr. Trépanier has yet to address the allegation in his testimony. The 74-year-old said he has some difficulty piecing together events, because of a drinking problem and memory lapses. He also had a hard time hearing questions.
Last fall, former party staffer Martin Dumont described a fundraiser where Mr. Trépanier's coat was so stuffed with cash he couldn't button it, a safe at party offices so packed, Mr. Dumont said, that Mr. Trépanier could no longer close it. Alexandra Pion, a former receptionist at the party office, described refusing to help Mr. Trépanier count a suitcase full of cash in 2005.
A stream of engineers and construction bosses have described how Mr. Trépanier demanded flat sums up to $200,000 to finance election campaigns, along with regular takes of 3 per cent on construction contracts.