MONTREAL – Quebec’s corruption inquiry has crept inside one of Montreal’s most exclusive establishments where members of the political and construction worlds came to eat and meet.
Club 357c is a high-end, members-only establishment located at that address on de la Commune Street, in the heart of Old Montreal.
What went on at that posh club, which was a frequent meeting point for construction bosses, engineers and elected officials?
Late Tuesday, an investigator began walking the inquiry through a list of people who met there. That prompted a memorable flareup — when the lawyer for the Quebec Liberals attempted to have a temporary publication ban slapped on the identity of two party members who met there.
A visibly annoyed Justice France Charbonneau began scolding the lawyer, her voice rising at his unexpected late-day request. She was pleased when he later agreed to drop that request, on the guarantee that the Liberals’ names would not come out before Wednesday.
“Now there’s an offer I can’t refuse,” Charbonneau deadpanned.
The club itself, where annual membership fees are reportedly about $3,500, is of no interest to Quebec’s corruption inquiry, commission counsel Denis Gallant said Tuesday.
What does matter, however, is the written record of meetings held in those lavish surroundings.
There were only two ways to gain access — you had to be a member or be invited by a member. And all of it was documented, Gallant said, because the club kept meticulous logs of who came and went to the establishment through sign-in sheets.
The records even note what people ate and drank.
The inquiry has been hearing sensational testimony about widespread corruption in Quebec’s construction industry that saw the price of public works contracts skyrocket thanks to collusion and bid-rigging. The illicit spoils were allegedly divided between political parties, construction companies, the Mafia and a handful of crooked civil servants.
The testimony has already led to the resignation of the mayors of Montreal and neighbouring Laval.
Many of the names that have been heard this fall were listed as club patrons. The inquiry has not alleged anything illegal went on at the club — simply that certain people met there.
An earlier witness, onetime loanshark and construction industry insider Elio Pagliarulo, previously testified that he made cash drops at the exclusive club for Frank Zampino — the former No. 2 at the City of Montreal who now faces fraud charges.
The club caught the attention of investigators last month and they decided to pay it a visit, said Erick Roy, a lead investigator for the commission.
The club issued a statement promising its full co-operation. The club has had 1,000 members in its decade in existence and they invited numerous other guests, the statement said.
“The 357c has collaborated voluntarily with the Commission and supplied the requested information,” it said.
“It’s important to note that ever since its opening the 357c states clearly in its rules that it will co-operate entirely with all legitimate legal body if there’s an investigation into a club member…. It would be unfortunate and unacceptable if the actions of a very small minority of 357c clients had a negative effect on the image of the club and its members.”
The inquiry only finished Tuesday examining the first of about 10 pages of meetings — held between 2005 and 2006 — and it will continue going through the pages Wednesday.
The first page included about a dozen names.
Among those who attended meetings at the club were high-ranking executives with engineering firms; a former Union Montreal fundraiser; the city’s former No. 2 politician, Frank Zampino; and the former mayor of a central borough.
They included Frank Zampino, the former head of Montreal’s powerful executive committee; Bernard Trepanier, a fundraiser for Union Montreal dubbed in local media as “Mr. Three Per Cent”; and Luc Leclerc, a former municipal civil servant who has testified about taking bribes.
The meetings were often convened by Paolo Catania, head of F. Catania Construction, Bernard Poulin, head of engineering firm S.M. Group International, or Pasquale Fidele, president of Civbec who was an senior official at F. Catania.
The inquiry has heard testimony about tight links between the Catania business empire and the most senior figures in the Rizzuto crime family.
People who convened the meetings invited senior executives at engineering firms like Desseau, Genius (formally known as Seguin) or Cima +.