Charbonneau commission: Tony Accurso won't spill much, past star witness says

Lino Zambito says it may be the evidence presented, and not Tony Accurso’s testimony, that sheds the most light on the role the former construction magnate played in alleged system of organized collusion in public contracts.

After a year of fighting the subpoena, Accurso is set to testify this morning

Former construction boss Lino Zambito said he knew Accurso well in the time they were both in the industry, but hasn't had any contact with him in four years. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

One of the Charbonneau commission’s past star witnesses says it may be the evidence presented, and not Tony Accurso’s testimony, that sheds the most light on the role the former construction magnate played in an alleged system of organized collusion in public contracts.

Accurso, who fought the subpoena ordering him to appear before the commission right up to the Supreme Court before running out of legal options, will finally testify later today at Quebec's ongoing corruption inquiry.  

Lino Zambito, the former construction entrepreneur whose testimony dominated the commission in 2012, knew and did business with Accurso for years.

“He was a major player and we had to deal with him — we had no choice,” he said.

“You needed to deal with him and battle with him almost every week for contracts.”

Tight-lipped testimony expected

Zambito told CBC that Accurso won’t offer up any insights on his own to the commission.

“He has too much to lose if he goes too open,” he said.

“If he was ready to reveal everything, I don’t think he would have fought for a year (against) showing up there. I really believe it’s going to be a strict minimum: answer the questions just enough to not get in trouble with the commission and that’s it.”

It’s a strategy that others before the commission, particularly those who are already facing criminal charges, have taken during the two years of public hearings. In Accurso's case, the commission gave his legal team a list of the topics they were going to cover.

Former Executive Committee chair Frank Zampino and Tony Accurso during a vacation to Las Vegas in 2006. Accurso's relationships with city and union officials has come up several times in testimony before the commission. (Charbonneau commission)

It's expected that his lawyers will ask for a publication ban on some or all of his testimony because of the ongoing criminal proceedings. 

Zambito took another route during his several days of testimony at the commission. He named names, recalled meetings and detailed his involvement in a collusion scheme that included billing city hall for false expenses on municipal projects.

He was among three parties who recently reached a settlement with the City of Montreal after the city tried to sue for the phony billing.

In one of the more shocking allegations heard in testimony before the commission, Zambito recalled a business dispute between himself and Accurso over a lucrative Transports Quebec contract.

He said Vito Rizzuto, the late former head of the Montreal Mafia, met with the two men at a Laval restaurant to mediate the disagreement over the contract for the l'Acadie Circle. The $25-million contract was awarded in 2003-04.

Accurso denied ever requesting that Rizzuto intervene between himself and Zambito and that the meeting ever took place.

He’s a guy who likes to control his own destiny,- Lino Zambito on Tony Accurso

Accurso took the helm of his family’s construction business in the 1980s, growing the company from a small, 75-person firm to an international network of companies with more than 3,500 employees.

He bought up competing businesses, quarries and asphalt plants all to ensure that he didn’t have to rely too much on outside companies.

“He’s a guy who likes to control his own destiny,” Zambito said.

Getting 'too greedy'

Accurso was well-known and respected in Montreal among those in the business and is a dedicated family man, he said. But that didn’t mean there weren’t hard feelings when he appeared to get more than his fair share of work or access to financing.

“People respected him like everyone in the industry respects everybody, but you know when you become too greedy and you want everything for you, people, after a while, they get fed up.”

As the businesses expanded, Accurso — who had close ties to leaders with the FTQ union, testimony, wiretaps and dozens of personal photos show  — became more and more controlling and concerned with having a piece of it all, Zambito said. 

It started to crumble in 2009 when the Canada Revenue Agency executed search warrants at companies run by Accurso in connection with a tax fraud investigation. In 2012, Accurso was arrested and charged with fraud, breach of trust, and influence peddling stemming from an investigation into how contracts were awarded in the town of Mascouche.

That fall, he stepped away from his construction empire, saying it was time to leave his conglomerate in the hands of younger and more energetic people, and that it would be better off without him.

Zambito said it’s unlikely the former king of construction will ever return to anything close to his high point.

“I think it’s over because with all the (lawsuits) and accusations he has,” he said. “Once he settles all his problems, he’ll be 70-something (years old). I think the good days are behind him.”