John Aquino, the former chief executive officer of Bondfield Construction Co. Ltd., was a domineering boss who was used to getting his way. But on Sept. 15, 2015, he was up against an ancient and immovable force: the Jewish high holidays.
That morning, The Globe and Mail had published the first of a series of stories about Mr. Aquino’s friend, Vas Georgiou, the second-in-command at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.
The story, which detailed how Mr. Georgiou had been implicated in a fraud at a public university, was damning, and would soon spell the end of Mr. Georgiou’s time at the hospital. But Mr. Aquino knew Bondfield’s computer servers held evidence of something worse.
For the preceding two years, Mr. Aquino and Mr. Georgiou had been exchanging secret e-mails on a BlackBerry provided by Mr. Aquino – e-mails about Bondfield’s successful pursuit of a $300-million contract to redevelop the hospital. Mr. Aquino had also provided Mr. Georgiou with his own bondfield.com e-mail address. This backchannel was in contravention of numerous procurement rules, and if anyone discovered the e-mails, it would mean trouble for both men.
The only problem that September day was that Bondfield’s go-to IT official, Benny Weinstock, was off for Rosh Hashanah and was prohibited, religiously, from working until the two-day celebration ended at sundown. That didn’t stop Mr. Aquino. “I need you at office immediately,” Mr. Aquino wrote to Mr. Weinstock at 1:05 p.m.
At 3:41 p.m., someone logged into Bondfield’s e-mail archiver and searched for all messages containing the term “Vas Georgiou.” Next, similar searches for keywords that might capture e-mails written by Mr. Georgiou were executed. By the end of this exercise, more than 5,000 messages were wiped from the company’s system, forensic examiners would later determine.
The details of the mass deletion are contained in thousands of pages of court documents unsealed in March, at the request of The Globe, by Ontario Superior Court Justice Cory Gilmore.
Last week, The Globe published a story about the unsealed records – evidence that was compiled by Zurich Insurance Company Ltd., the multinational company that issued more than $1-billion in construction surety bonds to Bondfield. The documents, Zurich alleges, show that Mr. Aquino bestowed multiple benefits on Mr. Georgiou, including free home renovations, and that Mr. Georgiou intervened on Bondfield’s behalf to help it secure the St. Michael’s contract.
Zurich, citing this alleged corruption, is seeking a court order rescinding the bonds it issued on the St. Michael’s contract. Mr. Georgiou has denied he swayed the procurement in Bondfield’s favour.
But the court documents also offer a rare peek into another aspect of the Bondfield scandal: the many steps taken by Mr. Aquino to suppress the truth, destroy evidence and kill a story that threatened to derail a company.
The records shed light on Mr. Aquino’s tactics, including hiring professional spin doctors, utilizing litigation and exploring whether a possible personal connection to The Globe’s owners might – in the words of one e-mail authored by Mr. Aquino – get the “story crushed.”
Mr. Aquino rallied allies in the construction industry and a prominent Conservative fundraiser. He also retained a public affairs specialist, David MacNaughton, who – just six months later – would be named Canada’s ambassador to the United States.
Six days before The Globe published its first story, word was out that reporters were beginning to ask questions about Mr. Aquino’s ties to Mr. Georgiou. Mr. Aquino exchanged e-mails with Bondfield’s chief financial officer, Domenic Dipede, who also kept track of Mr. Aquino’s personal investments. Mr. Aquino wanted to know: Were any clues about his ties to Mr. Georgiou contained in public records?
The answer was yes. Both Mr. Georgiou and Mr. Aquino were involved with a startup bottled water company, GP8 Sportwater. Mr. Aquino was an owner of the company, and shortly after Mr. Georgiou’s arrival at St. Michael’s, the hospital installed two GP8 water vending machines.
Late at night on Sept. 9, 2015, and into the early morning hours the next day, Mr. Aquino fired off several e-mails to Mr. Dipede: “Who owns shares of GP8. Can we say I have no involvement?”
Mr. Aquino also wanted to know if his name showed up in any public records connected with a commercial building in Toronto. Mr. Aquino was a part owner of the company that owned the building and, during the same period of time Mr. Georgiou was evaluating bidders interested in redeveloping the hospital, Mr. Georgiou had been co-ordinating construction work at the building. That was a conflict of interest neither man disclosed.
When Mr. Dipede replied that, indeed, Mr. Aquino’s name was in the public filings associated with the building, Mr. Aquino responded: “So this reporter could find out.”
At 2 a.m. on Sept. 10, Mr. Aquino sent instructions to Mr. Dipede and Mr. Aquino’s younger brother, Steve: “We need to hire the best libel lawyer to go against The Globe.” John Aquino also mused about leaning on an associate, who he believed had a relationship with a member of the Thomson family – the owners of Woodbridge Co. Ltd., which owns The Globe and Mail. “They own the globe and maybe we can get story crushed.”
Whatever pressure Mr. Aquino was contemplating, nothing came of it. Mr. Aquino made good on his promise to hire a libel lawyer, though, turning to one of Canada’s premier law firms, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. Osler operates a “Risk Management and Crisis Response” team, and Bondfield retained one of its team members, Kevin O’Brien.
After The Globe published a story on Sept. 24, 2015, outlining how Mr. Georgiou had been working on Mr. Aquino’s commercial buildings at the same time he was evaluating bidders for the project, Mr. O’Brien sprang into action.
Bondfield, represented by the team at Osler, filed a notice of libel and later launched a $125-million defamation lawsuit against The Globe, its publisher and three Globe reporters. Bondfield’s statement of claim alleged The Globe article had the clear inference that the contract was awarded because of corruption. When The Globe published more stories, including a piece about both men’s ties to GP8 Sportwater, Bondfield sued over those as well.
As part of the lawsuit, both The Globe and Bondfield were required to produce all documents relevant to the court case. The Globe submitted more than 1,700 records. For its part, Bondfield produced 56 records. Omitted from Bondfield’s records were, of course, the 5,000 e-mails that had been destroyed, Mr. Aquino’s e-mails to Mr. Weinstock and the e-mails in which Mr. Aquino outlined plans to “attack Globe” and get the “story crushed.”
The Globe filed a motion in court to have Bondfield’s lawsuit dismissed under the Protection of Public Participation Act – an Ontario law passed to quash meritless lawsuits that are launched not to seek an actual remedy, but to intimidate and suppress speech that is in the public interest. These are often referred to as SLAPP suits (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation).
In a statement to The Globe this week, a spokesperson for Osler said the firm had no knowledge of the e-mail deletions. The firm was required to conduct a review of its own records when the court-appointed monitor for Bondfield – which sought bankruptcy protection in 2019 – obtained a judge’s order requiring anyone with evidence of the deletions to preserve those documents. Osler complied with the order, and determined it had no records mentioning Mr. Georgiou’s secret e-mail address, the firm’s spokesperson, Judy Stein-Korte, said in the statement.
“At all times, Osler acted professionally and ethically in advancing its client’s interests in this litigation,” Ms. Stein-Korte said.
Despite Bondfield’s failure to produce the e-mails, The Globe was successful in quashing the suit in Ontario Superior Court in 2018. But Bondfield appealed, and in 2019 the Ontario Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s decision. The panel of judges found that the construction company’s suit did not have the classic characteristics – “improper motives, claims of phantom harm, and bullying tactics” – of a SLAPP suit.
Osler declined to say how much it was paid by Bondfield. The day after Bondfield’s win at the court of appeal, the company sought protection from creditors and that, in effect, ended the lawsuit.
But Mr. Aquino’s strategy was not limited to litigation. Also in September, 2015, Mr. Aquino retained a public relations expert, Liberal insider David MacNaughton and his then firm, StrategyCorp, to craft responses to one of The Globe’s line of inquiries.
Evidence filed in court by Zurich includes Mr. Aquino’s handwritten notes, which show he sought advice from Mr. MacNaughton. The notes say he discussed with Mr. MacNaughton whether he should proactively get out in front of the issues Globe reporters were probing, or wait until after the newspaper published an article.
Mr. MacNaughton could not be reached for comment. John Matheson, general counsel of StrategyCorp., said in an interview he cannot talk about the firm’s business with current or former clients. However, he added he would have no reason to correct The Globe’s interpretation of Mr. Aquino’s notes. Mr. MacNaughton was named Canada’s ambassador to the United States in March, 2016.
The court documents contain no other references to StrategyCorp in the days leading up to Bondfield’s lawsuit against The Globe. “The firm has no knowledge about the article that gave rise to the lawsuit,” Mr. Matheson said.
Bondfield also launched a public relations campaign with clients, suppliers and subcontractors to assure them nothing improper had taken place with the St. Michael’s procurement. On Sept. 25, the company disseminated a statement, calling The Globe’s reporting “false allegations.” The Ontario General Contractors Association, which Mr. Aquino had recently chaired at the time, reprinted Bondfield’s statement, and encouraged its members to refrain from commenting on the allegations in the media.
The Bondfield statement prompted at least one supporter to reach out and offer whatever assistance he could. Sam Ciccolini, one of the founders of Masters Insurance Ltd. and a prominent Conservative party backer in Vaughan, responded to the e-mailed statement: “I think a legal action should be filed against the Globe and let them know that the Aquinos are no pushovers and the Ciccolinis will be right beside them to help.”
Mr. Ciccolini had fundraised for former federal Conservative cabinet minister Julian Fantino, and Masters brokered some of the surety bond contracts that Zurich is now saddled with as a result of Bondfield’s collapse. He also co-chaired, with John Aquino, an annual fundraising gala for Runnymede Health Centre, a small hospital in Toronto’s west end that was redeveloped by Bondfield in 2007.
In an e-mail to The Globe, Mr. Ciccolini says he was merely offering his support because of his long-standing relationship with John Aquino’s father, Ralph.
On Oct. 24, 2015, Mr. Aquino also tried, unsuccessfully, to get a Bondfield employee, who was married to a Toronto Star journalist, to persuade The Star to interview him in an effort to “counter attack” The Globe. His request was declined.
The unsealed records show that Mr. Aquino was getting support from another close contact: Mr. Georgiou.
After Mr. Georgiou was dismissed from St. Michael’s, and he resumed using his bondfield.com e-mail address, the two men exchanged many e-mails about strategy, including how to proceed with their lawsuits. (Mr. Georgiou was also suing St. Michael’s for wrongful dismissal. He sued The Globe as well, but never proceeded past filing a statement of claim.)
In August, 2016, Mr. Georgiou e-mailed Mr. Aquino, and in an apparent reference to litigation, said: “It is time to play smart offense, enough stay at home defense.”
The next month, Mr. Georgiou sought a letter from Bondfield that would state neither he, nor any company associated with him, had received any compensation from Mr. Aquino or any companies associated with Mr. Aquino. “This letter will help both my and your lawsuit with the newspaper.”
Six days later, he e-mailed Mr. Aquino again: “After further thought you may want to rag the puck for a bit and slow things down against the Globe. Let’s see what other lawyers think of the strength of your case,” he wrote.
“Thanks again for cigar it was good to see you and you have charged my batteries.”
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