Tony Accurso was among 14 people arrested by the anti-corruption unit of the Quebec provincial police in raids Tuesday that might result in an in-depth look into the murky world of contract bidding at the municipal and provincial levels.
Accurso, a major player in the Quebec construction industry, has seen his name surface in alleged construction scandals that have rocked politicians, businessmen and labour leaders in recent years.
But the reclusive businessman had never been charged with anything until being swept up in an alleged bribery scandal in Mascouche, a suburb north of Montreal.
Accurso emerged from provincial police headquarters Tuesday afternoon with a throng of reporters, photographers and cameramen waiting for him. He said nothing as he hopped into a car and left.
Police said all of those arrested were to be released Tuesday under various conditions and promises to appear before a judge at a later date.
The criminal charges could have a political influence that goes way beyond the courtroom.
Premier Jean Charest has called an inquiry into widespread allegations of corruption involving the construction industry in Quebec and its ties with political parties and the awarding of public contracts. It is expected to begin hearing witnesses in the fall.
It is unclear what impact the arrests might have on the timing of a provincial election. Charest may be tempted to go to the polls in the spring before the criminal proceedings and the construction inquiry get going.
On Tuesday, Charest reiterated that the oft-criticized anti-corruption unit simply needed time to complete its investigation.
"The government of Quebec doesn't get involved in these operations, we're not consulted, they make their decisions," Charest said before question period in Quebec City.
"But what this also demonstrates is that no one is above the law."
Police are alleging that Accurso, 61, and others were involved in a system of kickbacks and bribes that were exchanged for favourable contracts or privileged information considered key to the bidding process.
Authorities say the practice had been going on for several years and they were alerted when two whistleblowers came to them 18 months ago.
Accurso faces six charges: fraud, conspiracy, influence-peddling, breach of trust and two counts of defrauding the government.
The investigation culminated in 14 arrests, including Accurso's, and a total of 47 charges.
Those apprehended include former Mascouche town manager Luc Tremblay, 62, and Normand Trudel, 59, another construction business owner and a partner of Accurso's in another firm.
An arrest warrant has also been issued for Mascouche Mayor Richard Marcotte, who is believed to be on holiday in the Caribbean. Marcotte, who ran for Charest's Liberals in 2003, will be arrested when he returns, police said.
Two firms, including one owned by Trudel, Transport et Excavation Mascouche, are also facing charges. The other is engineering firm BPR Triax Inc.
Trudel has been involved in fundraising for provincial parties, in particular the Quebec Liberals. But a senior provincial police investigator says those activities were not part of their probe.
"The investigation that we have done touched on political financing and contracts in the Mascouche area," said Insp. Denis Morin. "This investigation focused on that only."
Trudel raised more than $100,000 for the Liberals at a 2008 cocktail party that Charest attended. That year, Trudel and dozens of employees contributed $23,000 to the Liberals; four of his employees made donations to the Parti Quebecois; and Trudel himself donated $2,800 to the now defunct Action democratique du Quebec.
Another accused, Louis-Georges Boudreault, 77, is a longtime Quebec Liberal organizer who was honoured with an award by the party in 2010 for 50 years of volunteering.
Police executed eight search warrants on Tuesday, raiding offices and carting out boxes of documents from Mascouche city hall. Employees were told to take the day off while police executed their warrant.
"These arrests and searches came following a year-and-a-half investigation that allowed us to establish that a system had been put into place a few years ago, allowing certain companies to gain an advantage towards the attribution of lucrative municipal contracts," said Guy Lapointe, a police spokesman.
"This system also aimed at giving elected official and city officials advantages in return for favourable decisions."
Police would not go into specifics but said the alleged kickbacks included gifts and cash.
"Everyone that was arrested today had a role in the system, whether they were on the receiving or on the giving end," Lapointe said. "You give something and you get something in return."
Quebec's anti-corruption unit has been under fire for a lack of results amid rumours of infighting and power struggles among the group.
Robert Lafreniere, who heads the unit, said all arrests are big, regardless of the targets.
"This was a big hit, many people were waiting for it," Lafreniere said.
"But whatever the size of the operation, a citizen who is defrauded because of corruption is a citizen defrauded, so all cases are important."
With Accurso, the unit has nabbed one of the most controversial figures in Quebec. He has a hand in multiple companies that have considerable reach and done extensive roadwork in the province.
The wave of alleged scandals began with reports in 2009 that Accurso was hosting Montreal political figures on his private yacht.
One of his companies was also embroiled in scandal over a $355-million water-meter contract eventually cancelled by the city.
Accurso has never gone on the record to discuss any of the allegations.
The arrests come just a few months after the agency that enforces Quebec's building code announced it was suspending for several months the licences of two construction companies owned by Accurso's family.
The firms — Constructions Louisbourg, and Simard-Beaudry Construction — were found guilty in 2010 of defrauding Revenue Canada of more than $4 million between 2003 and 2008.
They are prohibited from obtaining public contracts for four years.
Accurso's name also surfaced during the 2011 federal election campaign amid controversy surrounding the appointments process at the Montreal Port Authority.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former aide, Dimitri Soudas, acknowledged that the government indicated a preference for Robert Abdallah as president of the Montreal port board, as did the City of Montreal.
But during last year's election campaign, an audio recording surfaced purporting to be the voices of Accurso and another Montreal construction executive discussing how Soudas and Leo Housakos could help get Abdallah appointed in 2007. Housakos, who was referred to as "Leo'' throughout the recording, was appointed to the Senate in 2009.
Soudas categorically denied having discussed Abdallah's possible appointment with anyone outside of government. Abdallah was ultimately not chosen. Abdallah, Housakos and Soudas all once worked at the City of Montreal.
Accurso and Bernard Poulin have never commented directly on the recordings other than to underline that making recordings of private conversations without the consent of the parties is against the law.
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