Tony Accurso tells corruption inquiry how he built his empire

Tony Accurso built his vast network of companies in part through his friendships with high-ranking union officials and the backing of the province's largest, union-controlled investment fund, Quebec's corruption commission heard today.

Former construction magnate tried in vain to avoid testifying at Charbonneau commission

Former Quebec construction magnate Tony Accurso testified Tuesday at the Charbonneau commission about how he built his business. (Charbonneau Commission)

Tony Accurso built his vast network of companies in part through his friendships with high-ranking union officials and the backing of the province's largest, labour-controlled investment fund, Quebec's corruption commission heard today.

In his first day of testimony after a nearly yearlong battle to quash his commission subpoena failed, Accurso detailed how he transformed a small construction firm he inherited from his father into a billion-dollar network of companies that were able to undercut competitors by controlling material costs. 

Accurso's name has come up countless times at the inquiry in more than two years of public hearings, particularly when the commission focused on the alleged system of collusion among companies bidding for contracts with the City of Montreal.

The businessman was also heard in wiretap conversations when the spotlight was on the FTQ, Quebec's largest labour federation, and how close union members were to those in the construction world.

But this is the first time the commission has heard from Accurso himself. He did not co-operate with commission investigators.

His testimony came after the commission rejected the last attempt by his lawyer to shield his testimony from the public. After the publication ban was denied, he was sworn in and the public hearing resumed.

Accurso looked relaxed as he described his career before the commission, telling the history of the construction business started by his Italian-born father.

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He testified that he was trained as a civil engineer and wasn't in a hurry to climb the company ladder to the boardroom, because he was interested in learning how things worked in the construction field. 

He took over Louisbourg Construction Ltd. in 1982 after the death of his father.

Friends in high places

Accurso detailed his introduction to the unions, and specifically to Louis Laberge, the former head of the FTQ, and the man who set up the union's investment arm, the Fonds de solidarité.

Accurso said he respected Laberge because he wanted to make worksites safer and ensure workers were highly paid, a philosophy that Accurso, even though he was an employer, said he agreed with. 

He said he considered Laberge a friend and that's in part why he agreed to be one of the initial investors who put $10,000 into the union investment fund when it was created in the 1980s. The provincial and federal government also backed the fund, which was developed with the aim of keeping work and money in Quebec. 

Accurso said he chose to do business with the fund because he wanted to keep investment in Quebec and not send it "to Toronto," though he said he could have secured the capital from other investment firms.

He later acknowledged it was also cheaper to finance through the fund. 

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      Advantageous autonomy

      Accurso said his business strategy had always been to find ways to be as autonomous as possible. With backing and capital from the fund, and at times the National Bank, he acquired more and more companies to further reduce his reliance on subcontractors. 

      "It gave me a big advantage — to the benefit of taxpayers and to the benefit of the municipalities, because I was able to submit a less-expensive bid," Accurso said. 

      "That helped you to get bigger contracts?" commission prosecutor Sonia LeBel asked. 

      "Not to get bigger contracts. To get whatever contract we wanted," he said. "Any job, no matter if it was on the South Shore, the North Shore, east, west, Montreal. It didn't matter where, it gave me the chance to get any [contract] because I just had to give my own companies an additional discount on materials." 

      The commission also briefly heard about Accurso's connection to former city manager Robert Abdallah. 

      Accurso said he met Abdallah while he worked for Hydro-Québec, and the pair became friends because they were around the same age and both had young children. 

      Lebel didn't venture too far into their relationship, but confirmed that they were friends during the three years Abdallah worked for the city, though they saw each other less, Accurso said, because Abdallah was "very, very busy."

      She also touched on other powerful friends Accurso made over the years, including high-ranking union officials. 

      Fight to avoid testifying 

      Accurso spent months exhausting all legal avenues to duck his subpoena, taking his objections all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

      The businessman, who faces an array of criminal charges related to the awarding of municipal contracts in both Mascouche and Laval, argued testifying would jeopardize his right to a fair trial.

      Accurso and his companies are also charged with tax fraud.

      Accurso refused to co-operate with the commission's investigators; instead, he filed a legal request to have access to everything the inquiry had on him, notably wiretaps and documents the commission's lawyers plan to enter into evidence.

      The commissioners denied the request, but did provide a list of topics they will focus on with the reluctant witness, including political party financing, Accurso's relationship with members of the FTQ union federation, and his possible links to members of organized crime.

      The inquiry would also like a list of the people invited aboard Accurso's infamous yacht, the Touch.

      Commissioners have already heard that numerous high-ranking municipal officials and unions leaders were frequent guests on the boat, at times during the bidding process for projects in which Accurso's companies were involved.

      Accurso's testimony continues Wednesday. 

      Key testimony mentioning Tony Accurso:

      • Two witnesses have alleged Accurso met with mob boss Vito Rizzuto on two different occasions to talk business.
      • The inquiry heard allegations Accurso had a close relationship with members of the powerful FTQ union federation, including the former president, Michel Arsenault, as well as allegations the construction entrepreneur received preferential treatment from the FTQ publicly funded solidarity investment fund.
      • Accurso's name came up repeatedly when the inquiry examined the way public contracts were awarded in Montreal. Former president of the executive committee, Frank Zampino, met with Accurso frequently while a lucrative water-meter contract was being negotiated, and vacationed on the businessman's boat three times.