Gifts of wine were not unusual, Zampino tells court

Gifts of wine were not unusual, Zampino tells court
Gifts of wine were not unusual, Zampino tells court

Former Montreal executive committee chairman Frank Zampino leaves the courtroom with lawyer Isabel Schurman for the lunch break in the Contrecoeur corruption trial at the Palais de Justice in Montreal, Monday May 1, 2017. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette File Photo

Seeing bottles of wine delivered to his home by the chauffeur of a construction entrepreneur did not raise any personal ethical dilemmas while he was a politician, Frank Zampino told a Quebec Court judge on Tuesday. 

While in his fifth day testifying in his own defence, the city’s former chairman of Montreal’s executive committee was being asked questions by his defence lawyer about gifts he received from Paolo Catania, the head of Construction Frank Catania & Associés, in and around the time the company was interested in bidding on a large piece of land the city was offering. 

Zampino and Catania are currently on trial at the Montreal courthouse, along with other accused, on charges of fraud and conspiracy alleging they were part of a bid-rigging scheme that defrauded taxpayers of $1 million. The charges involve how the city ended up selling land worth an estimated $20 million to the company for $4.4 million.

On Tuesday, defence lawyer Isabel Schurman asked Zampino a long series of questions about his relationship with Catania in 2005 and 2006 (the months before the company purchased the Faubourg Contrecoeur site). Zampino’s agenda recorded several lunch and breakfast meetings the two men had before the land was offered up for sale. Zampino said he never revealed anything during those meetings that was not already public information. 

He described the meetings as standard ones for someone in his position at the time. He said it was normal for the owners of construction companies to request meetings to ask if proposed projects by the city “were ever going to see the light of day.” He also said that the city had a “chronic problem” in being late in paying construction companies on time. He said Catania would bring this issue up often during their meetings, as did the heads of other companies that did work for the city. 

After going over the meetings at length Tuesday morning, Schurman brought up the issue of wine bottles. Earlier in the trial, Catania’s chauffeur testified he brought bottles of wine to Zampino’s home as gifts from Catania. Zampino said he considered them to be “customary” gifts that he received often around the Christmas holidays.

“It was a longstanding tradition throughout my elected life,” Zampino said.

He said other politicians and civil servants at city hall received similar gifts of flowers or gift baskets.

Zampino estimated that he received “two or three” bottles of wine from Catania over a three-year period. He said he had no recollection of what type of wine was delivered to his home and was not asked how much the wine might have been worth. 

“It was a custom that was accepted at the time,” Zampino said, noting the provincial government enforced an ethical code on such gifts or benefits after he resigned in 2008. 

“I’d like to make it clear that despite the lack of (such an ethics code), it wasn’t just a free-for-all,” Zampino said, adding that he followed his own personal code of ethics. 

Zampino also testified that he accepted invitations to attend Montreal Canadiens hockey games inside the loges of companies that often made bids on city projects. He said receiving gifts like tickets to hockey games or bottles of wine had no influence on his decisions at city hall. Zampino said he noted every invitation to Habs games in his agenda and wasn’t able to attend some games because he had to attend meetings related to his work. 

Zampino also testified that he accepted an invitation to attend a party Catania held for his daughter, at the family’s chalet in Piedmont, as well as an invitation to have dinner with Catania at his home. Zampino said he chose to attend both because they were the only type of functions his wife would attend with him. He said his wife hated going to political fundraisers and that Catania’s invitations to private gatherings were something she preferred. He said he did not discuss any projects with Catania at the party or the dinner because he had an agreement with his wife that he would “leave politics at the office” during such social gatherings. 

“When you spend 22 years in a career, you forge acquaintances. You forge friendships” Zampino said. “We accept (to attend) these functions because it takes us away from our daily lives.” 

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