For years, Antonio Accurso lived in a mix of luxury and anonymity.
When the media started looking into the construction magnate’s dealings in 2008, they found almost no publicly available images of the Montreal-area businessman. Instead, reporters relied on shots of his custom-built yacht – featuring a hot tub, four king-sized beds and all the amenities of a millionaire’s home – on which Mr. Accurso entertained politicians, businessmen and union bosses.
To this day, the public has heard more from Mr. Accurso through police wiretaps broadcast at the Charbonneau Commission than from the 62-year-old himself.
All of that will change on Tuesday when Mr. Accurso is scheduled to appear at the inquiry where his name has already been uttered thousands of times by previous witnesses. For the first time, Mr. Accurso will be able to explain whether or not he deserves to be seen as the symbol of the toxic mix of corruption, bid-rigging and political influence that has marred Quebec’s construction industry.
Mr. Accurso has used all available legal means to avoid testifying, arguing that he is facing dozens of charges in a variety of cases and that any comments on his part could endanger his right to fair trials. His bid has failed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Still, his lawyers are calling for a publication ban, which could delay the broadcasting of his testimony. The measure would frustrate the millions of Quebeckers closely following the hearings to understand what happened to the money spent on public infrastructure in the 1990s and 2000s.
Over more than three decades, Mr. Accurso built an empire of dozens of firms that he used to dominate Quebec’s construction industry. The names of his two main companies – Simard-Beaudry Construction and Louisbourg Construction – gave no hint of the man of Italian origin behind them.
Still, Mr. Accurso was a ruthless businessman with an unparalleled network of allies in politics and government, as well as the Quebec union movement and its unique investment arm that bankrolled his growth.
“He wanted to have everything to himself. He could fight as much for a $25-million contract as he did for another one worth $500,000,” said Lino Zambito, a former construction boss who has acknowledged his role in corruption and collusion at the Charbonneau Commission. “We saw him as being somewhat untouchable.”
Mr. Accurso also had a reputation as a first-class entertainer. As the Charbonneau Commission has heard, he took a number of people on his yacht, called Touch, on all-expenses-paid trips to the Caribbean, or to a classy spa in Germany where they attended weight-loss programs.
Knowing when to turn on his unique charm, he spent decades forming close ties with senior officials at the Quebec Federation of Labour (QFL) and its $10-billion investment arm called the Solidarity Fund. The access provided Mr. Accurso with an edge over his rivals, who had a tougher time getting credit.
“Inside the construction industry, it was well known that Tony was synonymous with the Fund,” Mr. Zambito said.
However, the ties created an odd situation where the construction boss was on the friendliest of terms with senior officials representing his workers. The normally tense relations between employers and employees were, in Mr. Accurso’s case, uncharacteristically warm, as shown by a series of pictures in which Mr. Accurso and union officials frolicked bare-chested on beaches down south.
“Accurso is like a brother,” Jean Lavallée, a former president of QFL-Construction, said at the Charbonneau Commission earlier this year. “I’m close to his family; I’ve known his kids since they were this high.”
Mr. Accurso was also close to politicians and government officials, including fundraisers for political parties at every level. During the 2011 federal election, recordings came out suggesting he wanted to use his contacts in the Conservative government, including future senator Leo Housakos, to influence the nomination of a new president at the Montreal Port Authority.
In 2009, revelations that a high-ranking Montreal city councillor, Frank Zampino, had twice vacationed on his yacht forced the city to cancel a $355-million water contract with a consortium that included Mr. Accurso’s firms.
After two years of hearings, the Charbonneau inquiry is now winding down, with Mr. Accurso among its last scheduled witnesses. The testimony, depending on Mr. Accurso’s level of collaboration, can be expected to provide insight on the growth of his empire, but also any extra costs to taxpayers that came with his controversial business practices.
And for the first time, Mr. Accurso will speak out in public on his own behalf.
Appearing in front of the Charbonneau Commission is the least of Mr. Accurso’s problems, as the only sanction that can come out of a public inquiry is a written reprimand.