Wednesday, April 17: At long last, Frank Zampino, the former second-in-command at Montreal’s city hall, has taken the stand at the Charbonneau Commission. In an impeccably tailored charcoal grey suit, the politician whom previous witnesses have described as the “most powerful man in Montreal” lives up to his reputation as a sphinx, inscrutable and calm as he answers questions without missing a beat, even when pressed about his alleged associations with the city’s Mafia.
This is the guy who infamously holidayed on a former construction magnate’s yacht, while he was still president of the city’s executive committee, then abruptly quit politics without explanation in 2008. Last year, Zampino was charged in connection with a land deal in east end Montreal, for having accepted “unspecified favours” during his political tenure.
This is also a guy who’s really well-prepared.
His face is a mask, no matter his tone of voice or what emotion he is trying to convey. The tenor of his testimony—at times monosyllabic, at others long-winded—is in direct contrast to that of his buddy, Bernard Trépanier, who appeared at the commission before him. Earlier, the affable former municipal party fundraiser, nicknamed “Mr. Three Percent” for an alleged habit of skimming that amount off the top of public works contracts, issued denials with smiles, and experienced well-timed episodes of hearing loss.
But Zampino, a chartered accountant, is indignant rather than defensive—and very proud of what he did for Montreal during his time in office. Commission lawyer Sonia LeBel repeatedly chides him, even telling him he is very good at “answering me without answering me.” When he takes offense, she continues: “You can object—but answer the question.”
Zampino eventually admits that his attendance at a 1991 Mafia wedding wasn’t the “greatest idea of the century.” In retrospect, he wonders why such a big deal is being made of it: at the time, he was the mayor of Saint Léonard (then a separate city within the borders of Montreal), and received an average of forty to fifty wedding invitations a year. When LeBel asks about a letter he allegedly wrote to a noted Mafioso, in which Zampino asked for a political donation, he can’t recall a thing about it.
“Do you have it?” he asks.
And so it goes.
Why were entrepreneurs interested in meeting with Zampino if, as he claims, he had no say over who won public works contracts?
“Ask them,” he shrugs.
Was there nothing out of the ordinary when an engineering executive arranged a meeting between him and Claude Léger, the man would soon become the city’s manager, at an expensive private club back in 2006?
“It wasn’t a job interview,” he replies.
As for the estimated 1,800 calls that Trépanier made to his office over a five-year period, well, Zampino says that number is totally false. His friend was calling the general office number, and could have spoken to up to five different people. The two men perhaps spoke 200 times, no more.
Zampino continues his testimony today.
Lisa Fitterman is a National Newspaper Award winner and the author of two children’s books.