Court documents reveal owner of CHSLD Herron's lengthy criminal past
'Unacceptable,' says premier, for man convicted of fraud, drug crimes to end up in care of Quebec seniors
Samir Chowieri, the president of the group that owns the controversial CHSLD Herron, was convicted in the 1980s of conspiracy for drug trafficking and conspiracy for fraud, according to court documents obtained by Radio-Canada's Enquête.
At his daily briefing Wednesday, Quebec Premier François Legault called it "unacceptable" that a person convicted of serious crimes ended up running a string of long-term care establishments in the province.
Chowieri immigrated to Canada in 1972, claiming to have only $2,000 to his name, according to Enquête. A few years later, in 1980, two people were arrested trying to cross the Lebanese-Syrian border with 14 kilograms of hashish. RCMP documents showed a Gatineau-area criminal organization was involved.
Chowieri was convicted of conspiracy to traffic drugs in 1981 and sentenced in the Hull courthouse to two years in prison. A year later, records show, Chowieri was sentenced to 18 months for conspiracy to commit fraud, for having acquired 12.5 tonnes of cheese without paying the supplier.
Chowieri received a pardon for his past crimes in 2014 from the Parole Board of Canada, a spokesperson for the businessman informed Radio-Canada in an email statement Wednesday.
"Mr. Chowieri, as well as all his companies' directors, were subject to a judicial investigation before being allowed to invest in residences for seniors," the statement said.
Under police watch for alleged money laundering
The Gatineau businessman also attracted the attention of authorities in the 1990s, according to information contained in a search-warrant affidavit filed by the RCMP, the contents of which have not been tested in court. Police suspected him of continuing involvement in drug trafficking, as well as in money laundering.
Through myriad companies, Chowieri allegedly recycled narco-dollars for the Mafia, according to information obtained by investigators.
"Chowieri is a smart and careful drug trafficker and money launderer," said an RCMP informant quoted in the document.
During a time that he was delivering pizza after immigrating to Canada, the businessman owned two Rolls Royces and two BMWs, a police informant said. The RCMP investigation found that Chowieri had allegedly made several trips to Panama, Colombia, France, Barbados, the Bahamas, Venezuela and Brazil.
In March 1990, he told a customs officer that he had to go to Panama to meet someone for a property purchase in Canada, but he refused to identify that person, according to the RCMP.
In 2002, Mr. Chowieri was also found guilty of tax evasion for having passed off personal spending as business expenses for his company, CHO Brothers. He was fined $125,000.
Despite Chowieri's criminal past, CHSLD Herron was authorized by the Quebec agency responsible for public contracts, Autorité des marchés publics (AMP), to do business with the Quebec government.
The AMP can deny that right to anyone convicted of a crime. However, that person has the right to seek government contracts again, five years after a conviction.
Just the same, the situation is "unacceptable," Legault said Wednesday when asked at his daily briefing to comment on the Chowieri revelations, first published by La Presse.
All eyes on CHSLD Herron
Almost 33 years after the inauguration of its first building, the Katasa Group — headed by Chowieri and his three daughters — owns residential properties in Ottawa, Montreal and Sept-Îles, as well as two commercial buildings in Gatineau. It operates three long-term care homes for seniors in Gatineau and four others elsewhere in Quebec.
All eyes have been on one of them, CHSLD Herron in Dorval, after the regional health agency had to step in to take over and discovered that 31 of its 150 residents had died since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in mid-March.
In an interview with Radio-Canada, Samir Chowieri's daughter, Katherine Chowieri, defended Katasa, saying it was CHSLD Herron's owners that asked for the help from the West Island CIUSSS on March 29 because they were left so short-staffed after the first cases of COVID-19. That's when the CIUSSS took over their administration.
"Up until that date, March 29, we'd had one death and two confirmed cases of COVID-19," Katherine Chowieri said.
By Gaétan Pouliot, Daniel Tremblay and Marie-Maude Denis, translated by Claire Loewen