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Lack of scrutiny led to corruption in Quebec's construction industry, commission hears

Gilles Surprenant, a retired engineer at the City of Montreal, testifies before the Charbonneau Commission on this image made off television Oct. 18, 2012.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

An engineer on the take who helped construct a well-oiled system of bribes and bid-rigging that operated in plain view in Montreal has revealed at least two factors that allowed it all to happen: Some superiors were taking part, and those who weren't asked no questions.

During his 33 years as a city engineer who designed hundreds of millions of dollars in sewer and water projects, Gilles Surprenant said he met with an auditor exactly once for a 10-minute conversation on a matter he could not recall.

He also described to the Charbonneau Commission, which is probing corruption and collusion in the construction industry, how tasks were combined and engineer-supervisor positions eliminated through the 1980s and 1990s, leaving more and more projects in fewer and fewer hands.

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Often crooked construction companies completed multimillion-dollar projects without a city inspector ever verifying cost overrun claims, Mr. Surprenant said.

Additionally, his supervisors asked few questions and signed off freely, leading him to believe many of them were also on the take. His immediate boss once showed him a two-centimetre-thick wad of cash he'd received from a construction company, Mr. Surprenant testified Thursday.

"Did your supervisors ever strike you as competent or rigorous? Did you ever fear you would be detected?" asked Renauld Lachance, the former provincial auditor who is an inquiry commissioner. "It would seem the least competent supervisor could have gotten to the bottom of this very quickly. There were so many clues."

Mr. Surprenant replied: "I agree completely."

The only thing approaching systematic scrutiny happened somewhere around 2005, he said, when an independent engineering firm set up parallel cost estimates for a year as the city struggled to find out why costs had suddenly risen 35 per cent. That firm only found three contracts with discrepancies, even as dozens of inflated contracts sailed through unopposed.

During his last day being cross-examined, a lawyer for the city pressed Mr. Surprenant for evidence he was simply being greedy when he took more than $700,000 in bribes, which started with a trickle in 1988 and flowed when the luractive system hit full swing in 2000.

Mr. Surprenant apologized, and said he vowed six months ago to lead an ethical life. However, this did not stop him from selling his house to his daughter to avoid having it seized at some future date. Commission witnesses have immunity from being dragged into court over their inquiry testimony.

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"When I knew I was coming here to testify, I was told I'd have immunity, but I'm no lawyer and I'm no accountant. I sold it to [my daughter] for $1," he said.

Mr. Surprenant says he "bitterly regrets" getting involved in the system, which is only one small part of a wider problem of bid-fixing that appears to have permeated all levels of public construction contracting.

In Montreal sewer and water alone, about $175-million in contracts were rigged to include a cushion of 25 to 35 per cent, the commission heard.

"My last 10 years at the city of Montreal were catastrophic. My friends, my parents, my children have forgiven me, but I haven't forgiven myself," Mr. Surprenant said.

The inquiry resumes Monday with a new witness. Inquiry officials systematically refuse to identify witnesses in advance, saying their security could be compromised.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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