The issue of Antonio Accurso's political ties has landed with a bang at the Charbonneau Commission, which produced a picture of the controversial construction magnate in a warm embrace with former Quebec premier Jean Charest.
Mr. Accurso played down the impact of his ties with union leaders in his first three days of testimony at the public inquiry, but he jumped at the first opportunity to make a link between government contracts and political donations.
The 62-year-old entrepreneur acknowledged he was furious when he learned in 2012 that the Parti Québécois government of the day blocked his construction firms from all contracts at Hydro-Québec. Mr. Accurso argued the decision was a "political command" from the office of then-premier Pauline Marois, stating he found it was a "disgusting" move.
Earlier that year, Mr. Accurso had been charged with fraud by the province's anti-corruption squad. But at the inquiry on Thursday, Mr. Accurso said with a smile: "Maybe I didn't give enough to the PQ."
The commission went on to produce a picture of the construction magnate and Mr. Charest, the former leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, hugging at a party fundraiser at Mr. Accurso's restaurant in 2001. The picture is signed by Mr. Charest, who wrote: "Thanks for your support."
Mr. Accurso said the Hydro-Québec decision came shortly after Ms. Marois took office in a minority government, after beating Mr. Charest in a tight election.
"It's not a big secret that I'm more of a Liberal than a PQ supporter," Mr. Accurso said.
The exchanges occurred at the end of Mr. Accurso's third day of testimony at the public inquiry into Quebec's construction industry, and opened the door to a greater exploration of political issues in coming days.
A spokesman for Mr. Charest, Grégory Larroque, said the pair were "not close" and interacted only three times during Mr. Charest's career. The picture was one of many taken during a fundraiser that was held for Thomas Mulcair, who was a Liberal MNA in Laval at the time.
To this point, the inquiry had focused on Mr. Accurso's close links to a variety of union officials in Quebec, many of whom were wined and dined on his luxury boat.
Mr. Accurso denied that he built a "business model" based on making friends in high places, or that he chose his friends based on their "usefulness to his dealings."
Still, he said his ties to officials at the Quebec Federation of Labour, and its financing arm called the Solidarity Fund, gave him an advantage when one of his files was urgent. He pointed to the key acquisition of Simard-Beaudry Construction in 1999, when financing from the fund allowed him to scoop up the firm during a busy weekend.
"The only advantage that I can think of is that if I had a file, a project, that was urgent, they could place it at the top of the pile," Mr. Accurso said.
Mr. Accurso said that over the years, he brought a number of QFL officials on his luxury yacht in the Virgin Islands, or on boats that he had rented, including most of the union's presidents going back to the 1980s. He insisted that he never brought federal or provincial ministers on his yacht, but he added, without expanding on the matter, that he had once entertained rock legend Mick Jagger in the Caribbean.
For the first time on Thursday, the commission played new wiretapped conversations in which Mr. Accurso spoke to a variety of his contacts. In one of them, he called on the head of a union fund specializing in real estate, Guy Gionet, to refrain from doing business with Joe Borsellino of Garnier Construction.
Mr. Accurso said he was simply engaging in normal business practices.
"You won't find an entrepreneur in the world who doesn't badmouth his competitors," he said, adding he had a personality conflict with Mr. Borsellino. "I don't like the guy."
Still, Mr. Accurso denied interfering with the internal affairs of the union movement. He said that former QFL president Louis Laberge once warned him: "Things are going to go well for you at the fund if you mind your own business."