Head of Public Works made housecalls to contractors
Published Tuesday, February 26, 2013 10:15AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 26, 2013 9:46PM EST
A former manager in Montreal's public works department continues to claim that he knew nothing about his employees being corrupt, and that he saw nothing wrong with personally visiting the homes of people bidding for contracts with the city of Montreal.
Robert Marcil was the head of the public works department in Montreal until he was forced to resign in 2009 for accepting an expensive gift from a contractor.
While testifying before the Charbonneau commission into corruption in the construction industry on Monday, Marcil claimed he knew nothing about rampant collusion within his department.
He also said he "fell off my chair" when told that a former underling, Gilles Surprenant, accepted $700,000 in bribes from contractors.
Marcil also denied that the city of Montreal was overpaying for public works contracts.
"We put in place control measures to oversee bureaucrats," said Marcil. "In the light of what we are hearing at the commission it's obvious there are flaws, that the city of Montreal was not perfect."
On Tuesday commissioners increased the pressure on Marcil, apparently trying to prove that Marcil was directly responsible for influencing which companies were granted contracts.
Lawyer Denis Gallant presented hundreds of phone call records showing that even if Marcil claimed he had limited contact with companies, the reality was far different.
Marcil said he maintained business relationships with several high-ranking construction bosses, but the 2008 and 2009 calls were perfectly legitimate -- even if he couldn't remember the topics.
Records showed that Marcil visited one contractor on the same day that he told employees about the city's new code of ethics in 2009.
Marcil said he might have been "negligent" when it came to respecting the code, but he maintained his innocence.
The phone records indicate Marcil spoke at length with someone at Arctic Beluga in 2009, and five days later, that company was declared the winner of a bid for a construction contract.
The phone transcripts show that Marcil was on a first-name basis with the contractor in question, which Marcil said was just his manner, as was going to the contractor's house to drop off or pick up paperwork.
That's when Justice France Charbonneau questioned Marcil's workplace practices, especially since his job was to enforce the city's code of ethics.
"You're the head of the department and you drop by the house of a contractor," said Charbonneau.
Another commissioner, Renaud Lachance, said it was obvious that Marcil was not complying with the city of Montreal's code of ethics, and setting a bad example for his entire department by going for lunch and dinner with contractors.
"When department heads do it, it's hard to set an example for the people below," said Lachance. "You have an office to meet these people; you don't need to go to restaurants."
Later on Marcil defended himself, saying the practice was normal within all city departments.
"Going to dinner at a restaurant or going to a hockey game with entrepreneurs or receiving wine, it's a practice that was known at the city, not exclusively in our department," said Marcil.
Marcil has said that the practice of accepting gifts from contractors was tolerated as a long-standing business-relations practice.
Lachance reminded Marcil that he "wasn't in business," but a high-ranking city official collecting a salary paid by taxpayers.
Charbonneau was equally blunt at one point during Tuesday's testimony.
"You were a senior civil servant. You had a head on your shoulders! And you needed to show a little judgment. It didn't need to be written down (to know) that you don't do it," she exclaimed.
Marcil replied: "It was poor judgment, I totally agree with you."
A series of text messages introduced at the inquiry also showed a conversation between Marcil and Joe Borsellino, a construction boss who would later pay for a group vacation in Italy.
The corruption inquiry heard that Borsellino took Marcil to Italy after he won an emergency $5 million sewer contract.
Borsellino paid his $700-a-night hotel bill. They visited Rome and Florence on Borsellino's dime.
Marcil said he tried to pay, but Borsellino insisted that he would pick up the tab. The inquiry head, France Charbonneau, dryly reacted by asking how hard of a fight Marcil put up over the bill.
That vacation led to Marcil's departure from the city.
After an anonymous letter was received by then-mayor Gerald Tremblay in June 2009, Marcil was convened to a meeting to explain the trip with a major contractor.
When human resources at the city asked for evidence that he'd paid his own way, Marcil returned with a letter of resignation.
Marcil has steadfastly denied that he had any inkling that collusion was going on under his nose.
"I never asked questions about possible collusion by the (city) engineers or by the contractors," Marcil said.
Marcil is back on the stand Wednesday.
With a report from The Canadian Press