Stonemason sues after losing legislature contract

An Ottawa-based stonemason, who has worked on parliamentary buildings across the continent, is pressing ahead with his lawsuit against the New Brunswick legislature, saying he was wrongly removed from a restoration contract on the building.

Ottawa company had $2.9M contract for phase of legislature's restoration project

Robert Bobby Watts, an Ottawa-stonemason, has launched a lawsuit, saying he was wrongly removed from a restoration project on the New Brunswick legislature. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

An Ottawa-based stonemason, who has worked on parliamentary buildings across the continent, is pressing ahead with his lawsuit against the New Brunswick legislature, saying he was wrongly removed from a restoration contract on the building.

Robert "Bobby" Watt says the then-clerk of the legislature, Loredana Catalli-Sonier, and the sergeant-at-arms, Dan Bussieres, had no business taking him off the job in August 2009.

He says the pair oversaw the tendering and contracting themselves, which he calls unusual.

"This should have been done under the public works office of the province," he told CBC News.

"It's done everywhere else in the country. I've never seen this before, where the clerk of the legislature assembly and the sergeant-at-arms take it upon themselves to do a multi-million restoration on a provincial legislature building."

None of Watt’s claims have been proven in court.

The legislature was built in 1882. The five-phase restoration of the building began in 2005-06 and ended seven years later, at a total cost to taxpayers of about $12 million, according to Don Forestell, the new clerk of the legislature.

Watt filed a lawsuit that has been delayed because his lawyer, Rodney Gillis, himself was charged and convicted of obstruction of justice in an unrelated case.

Watt is now asking the Law Society of New Brunswick to resolve a disagreement about Gillis’s legal bills so he can transfer the case to another lawyer and press ahead.

In his 2011 amended statement of claim, Watt seeks unspecified damages.  He told CBC if he wins, the taxpayers will have to pay $2 million.

Catalli-Sonier retired as clerk last year and has refused to comment on the lawsuit. Forestell said on Tuesday he would not comment nor would Bussieres.

The other defendant in the suit is D.M. Steeves, a Fredericton engineer who was appointed project engineer to oversee Watt’s work.

Donald Stevenson, the lawyer acting for Steeves and the legislature, said on Tuesday that Steeves would not comment either.

'Lack of respect for quality assurance'

In their statements of defence, Catalli-Sonier and Steeves dispute Watt’s claims.

Steeves said Watt "was not executing portions of the work in a careful and workmanlike manner" in the summer of 2009.

Catalli-Sonier says in her court document that Watt was subcontracting work to firms that were not pre-qualified, showing a "lack of respect for quality assurance and control protocols."

Watt told CBC that the clerk and the sergeant-at-arms pressured him to use local sub-contractors, while he wanted to rely on the expertise of experienced firms he had used on other projects.

Watt’s record includes stone work on the Centre Block of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the attached Library of Parliament, Queen’s Park in Toronto, and other legislatures in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean.

"I was going to be bringing in my heritage carpenters from Ottawa to do the work," Watt said.

"And at the very first meeting I was told that I was going to use a local guy because he had the job. And I said `How can you do that? ... I'll decide who's doing this portion of the work. I don't know this guy from anybody.' And that was the first argument we had on site. I was told that this guy was doing the work."

Steeves and Catalli-Sonier respond in their statements of defence that Watt was required to use only sub-contractors approved by the province.

Watt won $2.9M contract

Watt was the successful bidder on Phase 4 of the legislature restoration, with a low bid of $2.9 million.

The contract was for sandstone and granite restoration, and for the dismantling and restoration of the main entrance granite steps.

Watt says once he began work in May 2009, he clashed frequently with Steeves, who in court documents he accuses of issuing many stop-work orders that led to undue delays.

Catalli-Sonier points out that under the contract Watt signed, Steeves had final authority over the project, something Watt knew all along.

Watt says in his statement of claim that Steeves, chosen by Catalli-Sonier and Bussieres as project engineer, is "an engineer with limited experience with conservation matters and/or historic masonry restoration."

He told CBC, "That's akin to letting your dentist do a heart transplant after he's cleaned your teeth. The skill set is is just not there."

Catalli-Sonier disputes that, saying Steeves is qualified in historic masonry conservation and adding he is "endowed with high moral character and values."

Steeves worked on earlier contract

In a discovery hearing for the lawsuit, Catalli-Sonier said she got to know Steeves after he contacted the legislature in the wake of one of its large chandeliers crashing to the floor in 2002.

The clerk was looking for an independent assessment of why the accident happened and he offered to help, she said.

She said in the discovery that she and her husband became social acquaintances with Steeves and his wife after that experience.

After Watt was pulled off the contract in August 2009, another contractor was hired to finish the work. Watt says some of the work has damaged the building beyond repair.

He showed CBC News a 130-year-old granite block in the foundation that was "hacked to pieces," to install a window surrounding.

"Just ludicrous," he said.

"And against the tenets of the standards and guidelines for the conservation of historic places in Canada. The first rule is, do no harm. The second rule is, whatever you do do, make it reversible."

Watt says the quarry that carved the original granite stone closed a half-century ago, and the hand-carving cannot be reproduced.

The legislature contacted Watt’s bonding company after he was removed, claiming $400,000 to help pay for the completion of the work.

But so far the bonding company has refused to pay, pending the outcome of the lawsuit.