Quebec Liberal Party fundraisers allegedly pocketed huge payouts in government real estate deals

Suspicious payments allegedly funnelled through foreign banks may have ended up in the Bahamian bank accounts of Quebec Liberal fundraisers and the former head of the Crown corporation managing government buildings, Radio-Canada's Enquête has learned.

Radio-Canada's Enquête reports former CEO of provincial real estate agency may also have been involved

Three prominent Quebec Liberal Party fundraisers, William Bartlett, far right, Franco Fava, left, and Charles Rondeau, 2nd from left, are alleged to have shared suspicious payments for real estate transactions with Marc-André Fortier, 2nd from right, the head of the SIQ from 2003-2008. (Illustration by Jasmin Simard/Radio-Canada)

Key fundraisers for the Quebec Liberal Party may have pocketed large sums of money through a series of real estate transactions, allegedly splitting that money with the former head of the provincial Crown corporation charged with managing those buildings, Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête has learned.

The months-long probe by Enquête presents what a retired anti-corruption investigator believes could be the biggest case of real estate fraud involving government buildings in Quebec, and perhaps even Canadian, history.

"We're talking about real estate fraud involving government agencies," said Christian Plourde, a retired investigator with Quebec's anti-corruption unit, UPAC, who supervised the investigation until last year.

The investigation dates back to 2007, when Swiss police tracked the suspicious movement of money between European banks, alerting investigators in Quebec.

UPAC has carried out a long and complex investigation since 2011.

Enquête has learned the investigation is all but complete, and Crown prosecutors are reviewing the file. No one has been charged.

The allegations

The Société immobilière du Québec (SIQ) — since 2013, the Société québécoise des infrastructures — manages the Quebec government's office space, except for schools and hospitals and other buildings in the health and education networks. 

That adds up to more than one million square metres of space: the equivalent of 50 Olympic Stadiums.

Marc-André Fortier was CEO of the SIQ from 2003 to 2008, until he was let go following an auditor general’s report on the reimbursement of his expense claims. He was ordered by the court to pay back the SIQ $75,000. During that court case, he claimed to have been named to the top job at the SIQ after lobbying several 'heavyweights' within the Quebec Liberal Party. (Illustration by Jasmin Simard/Radio-Canada)

From 2003 to 2008, the president and director general of the SIQ was Marc-André Fortier. 

Fortier and three men well known in provincial Liberal Party fundraising circles — William Bartlett, Franco Fava and Charles Rondeau — allegedly split close to $2 million deposited in accounts in Switzerland and the Bahamas.

The money was allegedly derived from three separate deals to extend property leases.

Money wired abroad

Documents obtained by Enquête show the SIQ generally signs leases of 10 years or less. 

However, in 2004, the Crown corporation signed a 17-year lease to rent almost all of the floors of one of the biggest buildings in Place d'Youville, in Quebec City. 

Two months later, the private company that manages the building allegedly wired $1.25 million from a bank account in Liechtenstein to an account in Switzerland.

Documents show most of that money was allegedly then sent to four bank accounts in the Bahamas: $450,000 to an account in the name of William Bartlett, $250,000 to Charles Rondeau, $200,000 to Franco Fava and $100,000 to Marc-André Fortier.

Documents show that two months after the SIQ signed a 17-year lease for a building in Place d'Youville, $1.25 million was allegedly wired from a bank account in Liechtenstein to an account in Switzerland, most of it allegedly ending up in Bahamian bank accounts in the names of these four men. (Illustration by Jasmin Simard/Radio-Canada)

The whole cycle repeated itself in 2006, when the SIQ signed leases of 20 and 25 years for two other buildings in Quebec City.

This time, the building's management allegedly paid $2.1 million to a real estate consultant. That money was allegedly then transferred from Montreal to a bank in Belgium and several other Swiss bank accounts.

In the end, $902,000 was allegedly deposited in an account belonging to Bartlett.

Documents show Bartlett then transferred half the money to a bank account in the Bahamas. There, the documents show, three bank drafts were printed: $170,000 in the name of Marc-André Fortier, $100,000 in the name of Charles Rondeau and $100,000 in the name of Franco Fava.

The managers of the buildings told Enquête that they did not know who ultimately benefited from the payments initially made to the real estate consultant in Montreal.

Links to CSST

Quebec's workplace health and safety board, formerly known by its French acronym, the CSST, manages its own properties and does not use the SIQ to rent office space.

However, according to information obtained by Enquête, Rondeau and Fava received payments connected to a deal to extend a lease for the board.

In 2007, the CSST signed a 20-year lease with the owner of the building where its Montreal offices were located. Documents obtained by Radio-Canada show Bartlett worked with Fava, who was on the CSST's board of directors at that time, to get that lease signed.

According to emails that Enquête obtained from an anonymous source, one month later, Bartlett instructed his banker in Austria to transfer $422,575 to Fava and Rondeau, respectively.

In another document addressed to the Austrian bank, Fava indicates that this amount relates to his role in the transaction for "1199 Bleury." That was the address of the CSST's Montreal offices.

Franco Fava, left, and Charles Rondeau are both influential fundraisers for the Quebec Liberal Party. During the 2010 Bastarache commission inquiry looking into the nomination of judges, Fava and Rondeau's testimony showed they raised $1.5 million annually for the party in eastern Quebec, and both had personal access to then Premier Jean Charest. (Illustration by Jasmin Simard/Radio-Canada)

Buildings put up for sale

In 2007, the Quebec government announced that it wanted to sell three buildings: Place Québec and the J.A. Tardif building in Quebec City, and 500 René-Lévesque Boulevard Ouest in downtown Montreal.

Monique Jérôme-Forget, then finance minister and minister responsible for the SIQ, determined it wasn't the role of the government to manage these buildings, which were not entirely occupied by government offices.

Place Québec was sold to a consortium made up of the real estate branch of the Quebec Labour Federation (FTQ) Solidarity Fund, along with former construction mogul Tony Accurso.

A business owned by George Gantcheff, a major player in the Quebec real estate scene, bought the other two buildings.

Enquête obtained an explosive forensic accounting report commissioned by the SIQ that shows the buyers benefited from significant advantages built into the sales contracts — worth $47 million in all — that were not revealed during the call for tenders.

The SIQ sold the buildings, but it remained a tenant in the offices it had already been occupying.

The J-A Tardif building on Grande-Allée Street in Quebec City is one of the buildings sold to Quebec real estate mogul George Gantcheff. The original deal left the government responsible for all repairs for 20 years on the buildings it no longer owned. (Radio-Canada)

Once the call for tenders was complete, the SIQ agreed to make significant concessions to the buyers. It agreed to extend the length of its leases and pay more in rent.

The report shows only three people — Fortier, one of the Crown corporation's vice-presidents, and the real estate broker hired by the SIQ — were aware of the concessions.

Government foots bill for repairs

During the sale of these buildings, the SIQ also signed a clause holding the government responsible for all major repairs — for 20 years. In other words: the government no longer owned the buildings, but it still had to pay for the buildings' structural upkeep.

As soon as the buildings were sold, the renovations began. The SQI confirmed that Gantcheff's firm demanded to be paid $21 million for repairs.

The government had to pay just over $13 million before the owner agreed to dissolve that clause in the agreement.

Negotiations are still underway with the current owners of Place Québec to get them to agree to remove that clause.

Documents indicate that Bartlett was hired by the new owners of the three buildings to help them in the negotiations.

Emails from Bartlett to an Austrian bank, where he has an account, suggest that he was expecting a payment of $7 million from Gantcheff and one of his associates.

William Bartlett was vice-president of finance and real estate at the SIQ from 1988 until his dismissal in 1995. While occupying this strategic position, the SIQ made at least 10 transactions criticized by the auditor general in 1997. A past president of the Quebec Liberals and party fundraiser, he was part of Philippe Couillard’s campaign team when Couillard won the Jean-Talon riding in 2007. (Illustration by Jasmin Simard/Radio-Canada)

Denials, refusals to comment

The four people named in the Enquête report have either denied the allegations or refused to comment.

Fortier denied having a bank account in the Bahamas, which contradicts what's indicated in the documents obtained by Radio-Canada. He also denied having received a bank draft for $170,000. 

"I have nothing to say about that. I've already said everything. I didn't see anything, and it has nothing to do with me," Fortier told Enquête.

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In response to an email containing the information in this report, Bartlett's lawyer wrote "the facts were partly inaccurate and presented in a very biased manner," adding that there would be no further comment.

Rondeau said he wanted to speak with his lawyer before answering any questions. He never called back.

Fava said he was not aware of the allegations. He denied having bank accounts in the Bahamas and ended the conversation when asked about his account in Austria.

Long-term investigation

The Enquête investigation is based on different documents obtained over several months. 

They include, among others, internal investigations conducted by the SIQ, a forensic accounting report prepared by an accounting firm for the SIQ and documents obtained from police investigations in Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, the Bahamas and Quebec.

Translated from Radio-Canada by CBC's Ainslie MacLellan and Loreen Pindera