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Ex-Montreal mayor begins an eyebrow-raising appearance at corruption probe

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MONTREAL - The long-awaited appearance of Montreal's former mayor at a provincial corruption inquiry has featured a string of eyebrow-raising anecdotes, including one involving the ex-chief of police.

Gerald Tremblay says he was shocked to hear in 2006 that his party's chief fundraiser had, while claiming to be a representative of the mayor, allegedly solicited a $1 million bribe from the SmartCentres company as it sought to expand its mall-operating business in Montreal.

He says he fired the fundraiser on the spot, called the company to clarify that the bribe was unnecessary then, strangely, ran into a wall when he tried to discuss it with the police chief.

He says the former top cop refused to investigate.

In his first day of testimony at the inquiry Thursday, he recalled that the former police chief, Yvan Delorme, told him: "'Gerald, no act was committed, so there's no grounds for an investigation.'" Tremblay said he pressed the issue a little more, but the chief insisted he couldn't help.

The testimony Thursday shed new light on the departure of several people who left city jobs under mysterious circumstances over the last decade.

For reasons never explained, Trepanier continued to be involved in Union Montreal party fundraisers for a few more years after his official exit in 2006. The police chief also eventually resigned, under mysterious circumstances, in 2010 after his mandate had just been extended.

Tremblay's appearance comes more than five months after he resigned in scandal.

The former mayor expressed anger at employees he accused of betraying his trust. The bulk of that disdain was directed at senior officials Frank Zampino and Robert Abdallah.

He said he fired the latter in 2006 when he heard of improper ties with the business community, and would also have fired the former had he known more at the time.

He said he dismissed Abdallah, his city manager, after hearing about lunches in an Italian restaurant with now-controversial construction magnate Tony Accurso.

After leaving the city, Abdallah went on to work in the construction industry and, the next year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office pushed for him to become head of the Port of Montreal.

Abdallah did not get the job in 2007 and Harper has since said the reason his government put forward Abdallah's name was that the City of Montreal wanted him there.

The prime minister might have said the city wanted Abdallah there but, to hear the former mayor tell it Thursday, he regretted hiring the man in the first place.

"The confidence is no longer there. It's broken," the ex-mayor said of Abdallah. "If I had been given this information (about Accurso ties) when Robert Abdallah was named, it's certain I would not have named him."

He said the firing took two minutes. He summoned Abdallah for a meeting and told him, "Your mandate is over."

Tremblay's description of his own past behaviour, and such moments of decisiveness, has been occasionally rattled by other facts.

He struggled to explain why Trepanier continued to raise money on behalf of his Union Montreal party after being fired.

And despite his now-public complaints about Abdallah, he was quoted saying, in 2007, that the ex-city manager had done a good job and that he would be fine with him being appointed to oversee the federally run Port of Montreal.

The inquiry will not examine the port appointment, such as who first proposed Abdallah's candidacy to the Prime Minister's Office, because the probe mandate does not include federal politics.

Also, the ex-mayor said he would never have placed Zampino as the No. 2 politician in the city had he known about his dealings with Accurso, such as a Las Vegas trip. Accurso now faces criminal charges and the inquiry has heard allegations that he has ties to the Mafia.

Tremblay said that, even without that alleged criminal element, it would have been a firing offense for senior city officials to have such personal ties with a major contractor who competed for municipal work.

Tremblay himself resigned as mayor last November under a cloud of scandal brought on in part by inquiry testimony that he was aware of alleged illegal financing and did nothing.

As his testimony was barely getting underway Thursday, Tremblay said he wanted to raise a point he was eager to make: that his Union Montreal party had never taken a three per cent cut on construction contracts awarded by the city.

"It's impossible," Tremblay said, in a reference to the huge sums allegedly involved in the scam described in previous testimony.

"What would we have done with that money?"

That prompted the inquiry chair to interject with a point of her own.

Justice France Charbonneau noted that, a mere moment earlier, the ex-mayor had just said he wasn't involved in party financing. If he wasn't involved, then how would he know if his party was respecting the financial rules?

"You're saying in the same breath there was no three per cent," the judge asked.

The inquiry has heard that a construction cartel worked to inflate the price of public projects and split the extra cash with the Mafia, corrupt bureaucrats, and Tremblay's party through a three per cent kickback.

Tremblay was asked to explain what he based his confidence on and he replied that he simply had faith in his party's official agent.

Soon thereafter, an inquiry lawyer raised the one central question of Tremblay's turn on the witness stand: Are you naive?

The old politician fired back with a forceful reply.

"I am not naive. I am not a naive person," Tremblay said.

"I am a person who trusts."

He made sure to mention that he was not only unaware of wrongdoing, but that he also did not intentionally keep himself in the dark.

That prompted another intervention from the judge: "If you're not naive," said Charbonneau, "and you don't do wilful blindness, how did you not see this?"

To which Tremplay replied: "See what? See what nobody else saw?"

While he proclaimed his ignorance, Tremblay did say that early in his first mandate, a decade ago, he intervened to sideline an elected official who had improper dealings with a construction company.

When he took the stand at the Charbonneau Commission on Thursday morning, Tremblay started to outline his past. He said that at the age of 15 he knew he wanted to get into politics.

Tremblay served as a cabinet minister under the Liberals' Robert Bourassa in the late 1980s and the 1990s before eventually becoming mayor in the early 2000s.

When he resigned last November, Tremblay said he had hoped to testify at the Charbonneau inquiry while still in office so he could defend himself. Inquiry officials were not prepared to have him take the stand at the time.

His resignation came after a former aide alleged at the inquiry that Tremblay was aware of illegal financing within his party. That aide's testimony has since come under scrutiny, as he recently admitted to having made up some details from another anecdote he shared.

But the damage to Tremblay was done. He had spent years vehemently denying any knowledge of wrongdoing, and the allegations against him were politically devastating.

Tremblay became the inquiry's highest-ranking political casualty from testimony that has seen engineering executives and others forced to leave their posts.

His testimony continues Monday.

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