The daily exposure of fresh evidence of corruption in Quebec has triggered two sudden resignations and a panicked plea for inquiry standing from the former governing party that called the probe against its own political judgment.
In the most surprising twist among several inside and outside the Charbonneau commission Tuesday, Sylvain Lussier, the inquiry’s chief counsel, quit suddenly citing fear of an appearance of conflict of interest.
Investigators raided three construction firms north of Montreal, including one Mr. Lussier once represented in his private practice, Asphalte Desjardins.
While the connection was first exposed in August, it appears Tuesday’s raid made Mr. Lussier’s position untenable. Mr. Lussier has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but the potential of a bad impression had to be snuffed out, he said.
“Even if doubts (about conflict of interest) have no factual or legal foundation, it is apparent to me that the public interest would be better served if I withdraw,” Mr. Lussier wrote in his resignation letter.
Within hours and a few kilometres away from Tuesday’s raids, Antonio Accurso, the construction magnate at the centre of allegations of bid rigging, bribery and mob connections, told some of his 3,500 employees he is leaving the business world. His billion-dollar network of enterprises could no longer grow with him in charge, he said. Mr. Accurso said in a statement that an outside firm will advise him on a transition plan..“To our staff, I am sorry for the torment in which the group found itself in recent years, and for the worries and repercussions this has caused each of you,” he said.
It’s not the first time Mr. Accurso has stepped back from his enterprises as they faced trouble. When two of his largest firms were convicted of major tax fraud in 2010, his representatives revealed he had handed over official control to his daughter, Lisa Accurso. But there was never any question he remained in charge.
“I must leave, there is no choice. I’ve done my part. I’m 61 years old, I’m starting to get tired,” the reclusive magnate told La Presse Tuesday in his first, and so far only, extensive interview.
Mr. Accurso, who faces trial on charges of fraud, bribery and collusion, needled Parti Québécois Premier Pauline Marois. He thanked her husband, Claude Blanchet, for the vital role the former fund manager played by investing in Accurso companies.
As opposition leader, Ms. Marois led a daily corruption tirade against Jean Charest’s Liberals, often using Mr. Accurso’s alleged activities as a cudgel.
While news swirled around the commission hearings, Lino Zambito, the biggest star witness so far, was inside facing cross-examination over his contention Montreal was a “closed shop” dominated by a handful of companies.Under pressure, the former construction boss could not remember who first told him to pay percentages to the mob, to the party of Mayor Gérald Tremblay, or city officials. Many of Mr. Zambito’s most serious allegations were hearsay he gathered from other construction insiders.
“You are the man who saw the man who saw the bear,” said Martin St-Jean, the lawyer for the city of Montreal.
In the face of Mr. Zambito’s allegations, which have touched former cabinet ministers, fundraisers and party staffers, a lawyer for the Liberals made a last-ditch plea Tuesday for the right to fully cross-examine Mr. Zambito. The Liberal government tried to avoid calling the inquiry for nearly two years and the party didn’t seek full standing until it was well under way. “Our interest began at the moment when reputations were tainted,” said Liberal Party lawyer Michel Décary.
In a testy exchange, commission head France Charbonneau said the Liberals made “a strategic choice” not to intervene. “You would have had complete disclosure if you had been here at an opportune time,” she said.
Ms. Charbonneau granted the Liberals intervenor status, but won’t allow the party to rehash some of the most damaging earlier evidence.
Parts removed from the publication ban and other testimony described a cozy relationship between Mr. Zambito and cabinet ministers such as Nathalie Normandeau, who accepted gifts of concert tickets and roses from the businessman.
Others, such as Line Beauchamp, and the party itself are accused of benefiting from illegal cash donations. For every cabinet minister there was a handful of party operatives named as middlemen and organized the financing.