ZAMPINO TAKES STAND
Denies granting favours in office
Frank Zampino, once the second most powerful man at Montreal’s city hall after the mayor, took the stand Tuesday and emphatically declared his innocence at the Contrecoeur fraud trial.
He outlined his duties as chairman of the executive committee from 2002 to 2008, explaining that most administrative decisions for the Contrecoeur land site were taken by the employees with the city’s paramunicipal real-estate arm, and not politicians. He also bemoaned the fact city councillors and bureaucrats fear speaking with constituents and business developers in the post-Charbonneau era, putting a freeze on development.
Zampino was arrested in 2012, along with former construction magnate Paolo Catania and four members of his Construction Frank Catania et Associés Inc. firm on charges including fraud and conspiracy. The charges were linked to the sale of a 38-hectare piece of land in east-end Montreal known as the Contrecoeur site. Montreal civil servants testified earlier the land should have sold for at least $20 million to developers hoping to build 1,800 residential units on the site. Instead, the city’s real-estate arm, the Société d’habitation et de développement de Montréal (SHDM) sold the land to Catania for $4.4 million in 2007. The SHDM said the price was heavily discounted due to the cost of land contamination.
Dealing with a severe housing shortage that left hundreds of families homeless in the early 2000s and under constant fire from the opposition parties, the administration of Mayor Gérald Tremblay was desperate to create more housing, particularly social housing, Zampino testified. The Contrecoeur site was seen as a golden opportunity because it was city owned, and thus the city had more power to entice developers to include more social housing.
The mandate was given to the SHDM to figure out a way to develop the site, preferably with 60-percent social housing. Zampino stressed that the SHDM, an independent paramunicipal body with its own board of directors, took all decisions regarding the development of the site. Politicians, he said, mainly provide the direction the city wants to take and try to ensure deadlines are met. It’s civil servants and city administrators who dictate how it’s done, he said.
So while Tremblay gave Zampino responsibility for paramunicipal organizations and the Contrecoeur development site because as head of the executive committee he could co-ordinate the multiple members of the executive committee that would be involved in a file that included everything from infrastructure to environment, all responsibility for orchestrating the deal fell to the SHDM, Zampino said. Specifically, he said the responsibility for day-to-day operations of the deal fell to Martial Filion, executive director of the housing agency. Filion, who was also arrested in 2012 in connection with the case, died in 2013 before the trial began.
“Witnesses … say you took steps to favour Construction Frank Catania et Associés Inc. firm in this project. Do you have anything to say about that testimony?” Zampino’s lawyer Isabel Schurman asked. She mentioned Michel Lalonde, former head of the engineering firm Génius Conseil, who testified his company won $180,000 in contracts at the Faubourg Contrecoeur development project thanks to his ties to Zampino and contributions to Tremblay’s Union Montreal party.
“Your honour … I can tell you clearly that I never took any steps to favour Construction Frank Catania or Mr. (Paolo) Catania or any other person in this file,” Zampino said. “I never did give any orders to anyone or take any steps in that respect.”
Earlier in his testimony, Zampino said much of his job as executive committee chairman involved helping citizens or business developers who were having trouble advancing their files, but that kind of aid has come to an end after the Charbonneau Commission into construction fraud.
“The best image I can give you is that (city officials) are just in their glass towers today and no one is meeting the people who are doing business with the city,” he told Court of Quebec Judge Yvan Poulin.
“It’s a necessary evil but it’s an unfortunate thing … in that there is nothing criminal, there is no bad intent in meeting anyone who is doing business with the city.”
Files and projects no longer get done at city hall due to “prudence and fear,” he said.
The trial before judge alone began in February 2016 and is expected to continue until October. The prosecution called 56 witnesses, finishing in July. The defence began with their witnesses Tuesday, with Zampino the first to take the stand.
Former Montreal executive committee chairman Frank Zampino leaves the courtroom with lawyer Isabel Schurman during a break in the Contrecoeur corruption trial at the Palais de Justice Monday.