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.
On the other hand, the Montreal-area businessman faces court dates in four different cases where he will have to deal with charges laid by Quebec’s anti-corruption squad, the RCMP and Revenu Québec.
Mr. Accurso’s legal troubles started in 2012 as Quebec’s anti-corruption force, known by its French acronym UPAC, targeted Mr. Accurso in two major probes into allegations of corruption in the construction industry in the municipalities of Laval and Mascouche, on Montreal’s north shore. Mr. Accurso was charged as part of two separate police sweeps that involved a total of 51 people.
Regarding its operation in Mascouche, the police alleged that there was a system in place that allowed “certain companies to gain an advantage toward the attribution of lucrative municipal contracts.”
In a separate matter in 2012, the RCMP laid six charges of conspiracy, fraud, forgery and breach of trust against Mr. Accurso over allegations that officials at the Canada Revenue Agency helped his firms, among others, to avoid paying their full share of federal taxes.
Last year, Revenu Québec laid 928 charges against Mr. Accurso, his firms and a colleague. The operation was dubbed Project Touch, in reference to Mr. Accurso’s luxury yacht called Touch.
In a statement, the provincial tax collection agency said it planned to slap fines of $8.5-million and would seek jail terms over the allegations of tax fraud. Revenu Québec said the charges were related to allegations of undeclared income, false statements, a fake-invoice scheme and ill-claimed tax credits.
Court documents that were released in relation to the Revenu Québec investigation alleged that various personal expenditures were declared as business expenses, including millions spent on Mr. Accurso’s yacht and his personal residence.
So far, two of Mr. Accurso’s construction firms pleaded guilty to charges of tax fraud that were laid by the CRA in 2010, acknowledging that they committed $4-million in tax fraud by claiming non-deductible expenses.
However, the businessman has not been personally found guilty of any wrongdoing.
Mr. Accurso will face a barrage of questions about alleged bid-rigging, political donations and his ties with members of the criminal underworld when he finally appears at the Charbonneau Commission.
The inquiry’s goal will be to understand where his massive construction empire fits in the widespread culture of illegality that added hundreds of millions of dollars to public infrastructure projects in Quebec.
Mr. Accurso waived his right to prepare his testimony in preliminary meetings with the members of the inquiry, leaving him unsure of what will be hitting him.
While other witnesses have willingly spilled the beans in front of Commissioners France Charbonneau and Renaud Lachance, Mr. Accurso has gone to court in a failed attempt to avoid appearing on the stand.
He has also failed in his efforts to get a “detailed list” of the questions that will be put to him. In particular, Mr. Accurso wanted the transcripts of any telephone conversations that were intercepted by police and that will be used to grill him.
So far, the commission has heard allegations of links between Mr. Accurso and members of the Rizzuto crime family, as well as evidence of a generous streak in which Mr. Accurso showered gifts and donations on a variety of well-connected individuals. In wiretaps that have been made public, he came off as a smooth operator, but also a ruthless negotiator who was always seeking to protect his firms’ interests.
The commission has refused to open up its strategy with Mr. Accurso, offering only the broad outline of the topics that it plans to broach with the construction magnate:
- his ties with officials at the Quebec Federation of Labour and its investment arm, including union bosses who have vacationed on his luxury boat;
- his political donations at the municipal and provincial levels (the inquiry does not have a mandate to deal with federal issues);
- his firms’ contracts with municipalities in the Montreal area, the Quebec government and Hydro-Québec;
- his “links, where appropriate, with members of organized crime.”
In its ruling on Mr. Accurso’s demands, the commission added that it cannot circumscribe his testimony ahead of time, explaining that his answers will prompt questions that cannot be determined ahead of time.
“Even though the claimant [Mr. Accurso] had a legitimate right to opt out of the preparatory phase of the public inquiry, the Commission is in a situation where it cannot offer a precise scope of its examination,” the commissioners said.
They added that Mr. Accurso will have a right to consult any piece of evidence, and to listen to intercepted conversations, before being asked to answer questions about them.
Previous witnesses have objected to the use of wiretaps at the inquiry, but the courts have allowed the conversations to be introduced as evidence. In addition, the commission has already agreed to avoid questioning Mr. Accurso on any matter related to the criminal charges that were laid against him by various law-enforcement agencies in 2012 and 2013.