MONTREAL - Disgraced construction boss Tony Accurso told a corruption inquiry he gave up to $90,000 a year to the Quebec Liberal Party to ensure the smooth running of his business empire.
The most notorious figure in the province’s long-running corruption and collusion scandal said he started giving illegal donations to the party of former premier Jean Charest at the express request of his chief fundraiser, Marc Bibeau, and considered it a cost of doing business.
He was going on the advice of his deceased father, Accurso told the Charbonneau commission in his fourth day of testimony.
“Never ask a politician to help you, just not to hurt you,” he recounted. “I never ran after anyone to give them money. When the demands came in, we did what we had to do.”
Between 2001 and 2008, Accurso and his employees’ donations to the Quebec Liberals skyrocketed. In 2003, the year the party took power in the province, they were responsible for more than $70,000 in donations. In 2005, that figure jumped to more than $80,000. In 2008, an election year in Quebec, Accurso and his employees donated more than $90,000.
“It was request that we had and the peak is surely due to the fact that Mr. Marc Bibeau became the fundraiser for the party ... He called me personally. I met him at his office and he asked me for these sums year after year,” Accurso testified, explaining that one of his vice presidents, Charles Caruana, was in charges of finding employees who would write cheques for $3,000 made out to the Quebec Liberals and would be reimbursed by the company.
Commission lawyer Sonia LeBel presented a picture of Accurso embracing Charest at a fundraiser held at his Laval, Que., restaurant in 2001, but the entrepreneur said he generally shunned political financing events, preferring to send money than attend in person.
“I never go to cocktails,” he said. “We buy tickets, but I find it a complete waste of time.”
The invites for political donations from provincial parts stopped suddenly when the corruption scandal began to emerge in the media, Accurso said.
“My popularity was greatly reduced.”
His testimony provided an intimate window into the cosy relationship between Quebec political figures and businessmen who rely on public contracts for their livelihoods.
When former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau was defeated after running for Montreal mayor in 1998, he found himself deeply in debt and unable to pay it off after having remortgaged his house to fund the campaign, Accurso testified.
Duchesneau would later be the founding head of an anti-corruption squad charged with investigating the activities and others involved in the illegal political financing schemes and the collusion on municipal and provincial public contracts.
An intermediary approached Accurso shortly after the 1998 campaign defeat and made it known that Duchesneau would like Accurso to contribute to clearing his election debts, Accurso said.
“I met Mr. Duchesneau right after his defeat,” Accurso said. “We agreed on an amount ... $250,000.”
Accurso said he was asked to make the cheque out to the intermediary’s company with the understanding that Duchesneau would return the favour when he was able to do so.
“I’ll get back on my feet and I’ll pay you back in my future capacities,” Accurso recalled Duchesneau telling him.
Duchesneau, who was later elected to the provincial legislature on an anti-corruption platform with the third-place Coalition Avenir Québec, testified before the Charbonneau commission that three Liberal Party ministers had been treated to excursions aboard Accurso’s luxury yacht, The Touch. Accurso said Thursday that no provincial or federal politicians had ever been aboard his boat.
“When I saw him sitting in this chair and saying that there were three ministers who went sailing on my boat, the TV almost jumped. I was really not happy because it is pure lies,” Accurso said.
For his part, Duchesneau has denied taking money from Accurso or even meeting him until several years after the mayoral campaign, in 2001 or 2002.
“He’s not attacking Jacques Duchesneau, but the person who produced the devastating report that brought down his empire and ensured the construction contracts were reduced by 25 per cent to 30 per cent. That’s why he’s bringing out such stupidity,” Duchesneau said in an interview with the Cogeco radio network.
At that point, Duchesneau said, his campaign debts — which were much less than $250,000 — had been covered by Montreal philanthropist and bodybuilding entrepreneur Ben Weider.
“He can say what he wants . . . I don’t believe it and it will be up to the commissioners to decide if what he is saying is true or false.”