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We Spoke to the Guy Who Helped Shed Light on the Shady Dealings of Quebec's Construction Industry

Lino Zambito believes the problem is prevalent throughout Canada, and says other local governments should probe the construction companies in their areas.

by Brigitte Noël
Nov 25 2015, 8:15pm

Former construction boss Lino Zambito testifies before the Charbonneau inquiry in this image made off television in Montreal. Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Yesterday, Canadian Justice France Charbonneau released her long-awaited report on the state of corruption in Quebec's construction industry. The 1,700-page document is the culmination of a $44 million [$33 million USD], four-year inquest into the matter, an investigation that involved nearly 200 witnesses from the province's engineering firms, construction companies, and political circles. The conclusion? Corruption here is a deeply-rooted, widespread problem.

Alongside her 60-or-so recommendations to curb the culture of kickbacks and collusion, Charbonneau also thanked the key witnesses who helped shed light on all the shenanigans.

One of the men credited with setting the tone is construction boss Lino Zambito, a gregarious no-bullshit character who explained how his company had given money to political parties in exchange for public contracts. Zambito—who was the first to lay bare this vast network of mutual back-scratching—has since been charged with fraud and conspiracy and is now serving a two-year minus a day sentence on house arrest.

We reached him at home, obviously.

VICE: So, what do you think of the report?
Lino Zambito: Well, it's voluminous! The recommendations are there, and now the government has to put them into effect. Some recommendations have already been applied through laws that have been put in place [since the beginning of the commission], but there are some good suggestions. Establishing an organization to manage calls for tender and all that, that's a good idea. And an anti-corruption (UPAC) commissioner is also a good idea. There are a lot of good recommendations, the government just has to read the report properly and make them happen.

Was this worth it for you?
Listen, it was mandatory—it's not a path I chose. I was subpoenaed and had to testify before the commission, so I did the best I could with the knowledge I had to denounce the system in place. I think most of what I said was later corroborated, and this morning Justice Charbonneau recognized my contribution to the Commission.

Tell me about your life right now. What's life like for the star witness of the Charbonneau Commission?
Well right now, with the publication of the report, it's pretty eventful. During my trial, I decided to plead guilty and so I got my sentence and I'm serving it, two years minus a day at home. I have the right to work, I work for a family member and.... It's a little quiet life, I am trying to turn the page on all this.

Four years, $44.8 million [$33.7 million USD] later, was it worth it for Québec?
All you need to do is calculate all the money saved in the last four years, the value of contracts. Just in Montreal, for instance, studies have shown the price of contracts has gone down 20 to 30 percent. I think governments are saving hundreds of millions of dollars. Everything related to political financing laws have been changed, and they're really trying to stop influence peddling. People will criticize it, but in my book, the work was colossal and yes it was worth it.

Charbonneau co-commissioner Renaud Lachance, Quebec's former auditor general, said he disagreed with Judge Charbonneau's conclusion that there was a link, albeit an "indirect" one, between the financing of provincial political parties and the contracts handed out. What do you think of that?
Well, everyone has their vision but I think he was playing it safe. He's someone who deals with the government, whereas Charbonneau is appointed for life, she's not accountable to anyone. The directors of several big engineering firms testified that they were raising money for provincial parties, and those people all had contracts, government projects, so. Let's switch that around: if there are NO links, then why were they fundraising for political parties? There is a reason and it's quite simple—there was a relation between this fundraising for parties and the contracts they then obtained.

Were you disappointed that the commission's mandate was limited to the municipal and provincial governments? Do you think they should have investigated federal links?
Well I think we needed to set some boundaries because the mandate was already huge. The federal [side] would have required its own mandate—even Hydro Québec, we only touched on it. We spent I think a day and a half talking about Hydro Québec's work but I think you could devote an entire commission just on the contracts they hand out, the work they do up North and the meddling that goes on. But I think this commission's mandate was broad enough.

Do you think they would have found something at the federal level?
Probably. If the industry was this diseased at the provincial level, I don't think it's much better federally.

So some people say, "Oh, here's more proof that Quebec is the most corrupt province," but that's coming from provinces that have not led commissions. Do you think other provinces would find this type of corruption?
I'm convinced this is happening on a national scale. Quebec had the merit to realize its faults and get to the bottom of the issue, to analyze it and try to find a solution. So if people think that in Ontario or elsewhere this isn't going on, I think they're burying their heads in the sand. Collusion and corruption happens at the national level and pretty much everywhere. Quebec had the courage, because of the media's pressure and revelations, to investigate. But if the same exercise was done elsewhere I think they'd get some surprising results.

Is this the end of cash-filled brown envelopes in Québec?
No! I think the government will have to be vigilant and put measures in place to fight [illegal financing], but they have to remain on guard. The UPAC [permanent anti-corruption unit], the government, the surveillance groups... It's a daily battle! If we do nothing and come back in ten, 20 years and check in, we'll end up with the same problem. We need to put mechanisms—like Montreal's Bureau of the Inspector General [BIG]—in place everywhere and stay on top of things. But if we think we're going to completely eradicate corruption, I think we're making a mistake. We can diminish it.

One of the recommendation is that people who have committed certain crimes (drug trafficking, money laundering, or anything linked to collusion and corruption) should no longer be able to get a license from the Régie du bâtiment [Quebec's construction watchdog]. Is that fair?
Well... you should still give people a chance to be rehabilitated, I'm living proof of that. I dabbled in that world but I think that once people take responsibility, blow the whistle and pay the price, that you have to let those people get rehabilitated and let them come back into the field. You can't bar people for life. I think this should be a temporary measure. The AMF [Authorité des marchés financiers, the province's financial regulator] verifies the licenses given to construction companies and I can tell you that an industrial quantity of people who have been named at the Charbonneau Commission are working and can bid on contracts in Montreal. So that's not very effective.

Your name is in the report more than 550 times. How's that for a legacy?
I haven't really leafed through it, I'm only hearing that from you. But the judge recognized my contribution. I'm not surprised it's come up so often—I invaded the municipal, the provincial, all the financing, I cast a wide net so it makes sense that my name would be there a lot. But that much, I'm still kind of surprised.

What's next?
I just want to turn the page, take care of my family, my kids, rebuild my life! I now work for a member of my family. The routine! I just want to stay out of the spotlight for a few years.

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