Just like a restaurant that is hoping for a second lease on life after sanitary inspectors found roaches in its kitchen, Quebec's biggest construction company has new owners and a new name. "Hexagone – New Administration" is how its storefront now reads.
The man who masterminded this rebirth, construction mogul Tony Accurso, is as famous as the name of this new business venture is unremarkable. Mr. Accurso is accused of fraud and bribery as well as having conspired to bribe Canada Revenue Agency employees in two unrelated affairs. Two of his companies were found guilty of tax evasion in 2010 after they failed to pay $4.1-million in federal taxes. And his old yacht The Touch, where high-level civil servants and union leaders sojourned, has become the symbol of the Quebec corruption scandal.
Mr. Accurso's reputation is now so tainted that it compromises his companies' ability to earn contracts with the Quebec and municipal governments because of the province's new integrity law. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending how you see it, public works contracts have been the bread and butter of his business.
He had no choice but to leave, as Mr. Accurso himself conceded last October when he announced that his construction companies were up for sale. They account for roughly half of his empire, a dozen companies that employ more than 3,000 workers with yearly revenues reportedly estimated at $1-billion, although the financials of these privately held firms are impossible to ascertain independently.
Mr. Accurso hoped he could sell his companies to Quebec interests. But he did even better than that, as the $150-million transaction unveiled this week showed. Mr. Accurso kept it in the family. His sons James and Marco Accurso are among the six shareholders of Hexagone.
And here lies the malaise. The Quebec government professes it will cut ties with the construction and engineering firms that have ripped off taxpayers or that have hijacked municipal elections through illegal political donations. But at the same time, it wants to preserve its business champions so that they don't fail or fall into foreign hands.
"We cannot afford to lose those big firms," Quebec Premier Pauline Marois recently said in a TVA political show.
In this case, the group that bought the construction companies, led by an old acquaintance of Mr. Accurso, Joël Gauthier, a former general manager of the Quebec Liberal party, made it easier for the government. While Mr. Accurso's sons are important shareholders, they will not sit on the nine-member board, where five independent directors were brought in. Amongst them is a former Parti Québécois minister, Yves Duhaime, and a former president of the provincial liquor monopoly SAQ, Gaétan Frigon, who has gained celebrity status since he became a business panelist on Radio-Canada's French version of Dragons' Den.
This structure has brought both credibility and a certain political neutrality to Hexagone. But it is very hard to escape the impression that Tony Accurso will loom large over his old construction companies through his sons.
The Quebec government still has to decide if it will give any business to Hexagone, through its new vetting process. All firms vying for public works contracts undergo a police investigation in the hopes of securing the go-ahead from Quebec's securities commission, the AMF. And that, in the end, will determine the fate of Hexagone.
But at the same time, Quebec is fully aware of what would happen if it opposed Hexagone's licence request. Having the province's biggest construction company being bought out by the French company Sintra (owned by Colas SA) or another construction multinational? For a government that prides itself on promoting Quebec's business success stories, the answer is a resounding 'no way.'
The same applies to SNC-Lavalin Group, the engineering firm that is mired in bribing scandals on just about every continent, and in its hometown of Montreal, no less. According to sources, the Quebec government is concerned about the frailty of SNC, a company that has no controlling shareholder and in which activist investor West Face Capital recently invested in a push to "unlock value." Would Quebec jeopardize its own engineering multinational by not awarding it a licence to bid on public work contracts? That is highly doubtful. Quebec will likely agree with new president Robert Card that the bribing scandals were a "compartmentalized issue" and that the problem can be resolved.
And so it is that even if Quebeckers are mad as hell over having been cheated by construction and engineering firms, their thirst for justice may well be superseded by the protection of Quebec Inc., which has always been, and remains, an overarching goal.