MONTREAL - After expanding his business empire over 30 years, Quebec construction king Tony Accurso went from invincible to untouchable with receipt of a letter in September 2012.
It was from Hydro-Quebec, the province’s most important source of public contracts, and said quite bluntly that Accurso’s construction company was no longer welcome to bid on its infrastructure contracts.
The man who singlehandedly built his father’s firm into a $1-billion stable of companies that dominated the provincial market was astonished and distraught and immediately began working his contacts.
He called Robert Abdallah, who worked with Hydro-Quebec before becoming the director general of the City of Montreal and later abruptly leaving to work for Accurso. And he called Michel Arsenault, the president of Quebec’s largest labour union.
“Put it in context,” Accurso told the Charbonneau Commission Thursday. “We’re the best excavation company in Quebec . . . . We’re on the site and all of a sudden we’re not able to bid (on the project) . . . . If I had been able to call Jesus Christ I would have. I was really furious.”
It didn’t take long before Accurso got through to a political contact with the Parti Québécois, which only weeks earlier had formed government.
“It’s an order, a political order,” Accurso told Abdallah in a follow-up call. “Don’t do anything. It’s important that this doesn’t leak out.”
The order, Accurso told the commission during his third day of testimony, came directly from then-PQ premier Pauline Marois, who had just come to power after defeating a Quebec Liberal Party that was unseated by the long-running corruption scandal. Accurso had become the scandal’s public face.
He found the idea “disgusting” that his company had been barred from lucrative construction contracts for political reasons.
“Maybe I didn’t give enough money to the PQ,” he told the commission, jokingly.
“We’ll get to that soon,” commission lawyer Sonia Lebel shot back.
Lebel presented the commission with a 2001 photo showing Accurso hugging Liberal party leader Jean Charest during a political fundraiser at Accurso’s restaurant and signed by the future premier: “Dear Tony. Thanks for the support. Your friend J. Charest.”
Provincial opponents of the Liberal party have long criticized Charest’s government for resisting calls for a public inquiry into the corruption scandal for two years before relenting in 2011.
Thursday’s testimony provided yet another glimpse into the business operations of Accurso, who is facing two separate charges of corruption and fraud related to business dealings in the Montreal-area municipalities of Mascouche and Terrebonne, as well as a third charge related to tax evasion.
Much of the media attention in the five years since the corruption scandal emerged in the press had focused on Accurso’s luxury yacht, The Touch, and the union leaders and politicians who had enjoyed fully paid excursions aboard the floating four-bedroom mansion.
There have been unconfirmed rumours and allegations that a number of provincial Liberal ministers had been caught at one time or another aboard Accurso’s boat, which is docked in the Virgin Islands.
But apart from leaders with Quebec’s largest union, the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), and the two mayors facing corruption charges along with him, Accurso said there were no provincial or federal politicians ever invited onto his boat.
Others invited to sail with Accurso, included his wife, friends from school and his childhood and, he said with a smirk but no explanation, Rolling Stone frontman Mick Jagger.
Yet when the public started to learn details of the allegedly mismanaged $9-billion investment fund run by the FTQ, as well as the details about construction firms that pre-arrange their bids on public contracts and inflate the costs for profit, or the nefarious hand of the Montreal Mafia in managing the illegal scheme for a cut of the profits, the contacts that Accurso had cultivated became fearful.
One 2009 wiretap played at the commission captured Arsenault, the FTQ president, speaking with his political adviser, Gilles Audet, about the problems with the union’s Solidarity Fund.
“I love Tony a lot, but he’s going to have to understand that he’s not alone on this earth, that there are other entrepreneurs,” Audette remarked.
“He’ll have to share the pie,” Arsenault said in agreement.
Accurso dismissed the comments, insisting that he never used his friendships with union leaders to advance his business interests, nor did he call on his friends to favour his projects that needed funding over those of his competitors.
“I take care of my files, my business. I’m there to build my empire,” he said. “What others do, I could care less. I take care of my business, my parish.”
Yet Accurso didn’t hesitate in 2009 to make a profanity-laced call to Arsenault when two foreign firms, one from Spain and another from China, were awarded a contract to build a section of highway even though local Quebec firms had been in the running. The suggestion is that Arsenault might raise the issue with the premier’s office, then occupied by Charest.
“What I wished to happen is for Mr. Charest to become aware of the situation and then take a decision as premier,” Accurso explained. “If he says it’s fine that we do that, that’s fine . . . I’m convinced that he wouldn’t be okay with that situation.”
The commission is expected to venture into Accurso’s role in the financing of political parties, which have been established by previous construction entrepreneurs who have testified at the corruption probe as a way of ensuring access to public contracts.