An engineer who admits he was part of a vast bribery and collusion ring in Montreal's municipal construction industry has testified that contracts at the provincial level were much tougher to corrupt. Still, Michel Lalonde, head of the engineering firm Génius Conseil, found a way.
Over 14 years, Mr. Lalonde testified to the Charbonneau commission Tuesday, he used family members and associates to funnel at least $187,000 in illegal corporate and personal donations to Quebec's main political parties.
Mr. Lalonde also said he managed to find a mole to promote his interests within a committee of the Ministry of Transport, which was tasked with selecting winning bids on projects.
Mr. Lalonde, the first representative of Quebec's private engineering firms to admit wrong- doing at the inquiry into the construction industry, said sidestepping electoral law to give more money the parties was "part of our democracy."
"It's worked this way since Duplessis," Mr. Lalonde said, referring to the strongman premier who ruled Quebec in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. "When you get projects, you make your contribution. The more projects we won, the more we were solicited."
Records from Quebec's electoral office show that over the period, Mr. Lalonde gave about $12,000 each, under his own name and legally, to the Parti Québécois and the Liberals. He also funnelled an additional $105,000 to the PQ and $82,000 to the Liberals from his firm through surrogates, who were used to conceal the true origin of the money. A lawyer for Quebec's electoral officer rose during hearings to make sure one message was clear: Contributing to political parties through surrogates is illegal.
Provincial parties appeared shaken by the revelations at the inquiry but wouldn't acknowledge any wrongdoing.
Quebec Liberal interim leader Jean-Marc Fournier said it would be wise to wait until the end of the hearings before commenting on any alleged illegal funding schemes involving his party. "It's not for me to make any assessments of what is coming out of the Charbonneau inquiry."
Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault said the revelations were another sign that the public will expect firm action from the government to put an end to the corruption.
"We have the demonstration that there was collusion, that there was corruption and this is hurting the public's confidence in the ability to launch Quebec on a more positive course," he said.
Sylvain Tanguay, director-general of the PQ, said he was surprised by the revelations. "This certainly raises questions because there was no illegal funding scheme in our party. There were no links made in the testimony before the inquiry between party financing and the awarding of public contracts. It would be a mistake to presume that any wrongdoing occurred in our party."
Mr. Lalonde is not the first industry player to admit making such donations. Construction boss Lino Zambito described using similar figurehead donors to funnel money to the Liberals.
Mr. Lalonde also said that, unlike at the municipal level, there was no direct payback for donations. The inquiry chairs, France Charbonneau and Renaud Lachance, and inquiry counsel Denis Gallant asked repeatedly what would have happened to Mr. Lalonde's business had he not made the donations.
"It never occurred to me not to pay … it was just the way of doing business," Mr. Lalonde said. "In the medium term, I'm not sure there would have been a major impact. But it was the rule. It was the way of doing things. [Consequences] were not as obvious as at the municipal sector."
Mr. Lalonde described how he used the personal connections of associate Gilles Thibodeau to enlist Claude Millaire, an expert member of a Transport committee, to help secure contracts. Mr. Lalonde said in 2004 he first bought Mr. Millaire small items like a camera and cellphone (for which his company paid the bills over the next six years).
By 2006, he said, Mr. Millaire asked for a 1.25-per-cent cut on a $2-million contract. Mr. Lalonde testified that he paid Mr. Millaire $25,000, and he won the contract.
But unlike municipalities like Montreal and a long list of its surrounding suburbs, where corruption was apparently widespread and systemic, Mr. Lalonde said he wasn't aware of other companies bribing provincial officials to grow their share of construction contracts. "It was an exceptional case," he said.
Mr. Lalonde said tendering rules that require contracts to be awarded to the lowest bidder open the door to a system where companies can collude to inflate prices. The engineer repeated several times that contracts should be awarded based on competence rather than low bids.