Here’s the image Jean Charest never wanted Quebecers to see
September 5, 2014
Charbonneau Commission via Postmedia
On Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, this picture was entered into evidence at the Charbonneau Commission, showing former premier Jean Charest grinning broadly as he embraces construction magnate Tony Accurso. Along one side of the image, a handwritten message from Charest reads: “Dear Tony, thanks for your support. In friendship, Charest 2001..
MONTREAL — It’s the image that Jean Charest never wanted Quebecers to see.
Almost three years after the former premier bowed to public pressure and created the Charbonneau Commission, the inquiry has made public a single photograph from 2001 that, if it had been released while Charest was still in office, would likely have forced his resignation.
The picture shows the now-retired politician grinning broadly as he embraces construction magnate Antonio Accurso. Down the left side of the image, a handwritten message reads, in French: “Dear Tony, thanks for your support. In friendship, Charest.”
Accurso, who spent a third day on the stand at the Charbonneau Commission on Thursday, confirmed under oath that the image is authentic, and that it was taken at a fundraising activity he organized for the Liberals at his Laval restaurant.
At the time the picture was snapped, Accurso was just one of several highly successful businessmen in Quebec’s construction industry. But his companies, as well as man himself, came under increased scrutiny in the late 2000s, leading to several police investigations and dozens of criminal charges.
As the depth of Quebec’s corruption problem became apparent, Charest repeatedly insisted that a public inquiry into dirty backroom deals in the construction industry was not necessary. He would eventually create the Charbonneau Commission in late October 2011 after months of intense pressure.
Accurso is expected to be questioned further on Friday about his ties to the provincial Liberals, and to Charest.
Earlier in the day Thursday, the embattled businessman was confronted with wiretap tapes that laid bare his anger and near-panic in late 2012 when he learned that his companies had been banned from bidding on Hydro-Québec contracts. Upon hearing the news from his son, Accurso called former Hydro-Québec executive (and former Montreal city manager) Robert Abdallah, as well as then-FTQ president Michel Arsenault. After listening to his own voice — laced with anger — speaking to the men on the tapes, the witness explained that he simply wanted “information” from them. According to Accurso, he soon discovered why his companies had been blacklisted. The “political command,” he testified, came straight from newly elected premier Pauline Marois.
“I found it disgusting,” he said, insisting that his companies’ record on Hydro-Québec contracts was “impeccable.”
“Maybe I didn’t give enough money to the PQ, I don’t know.”
Accurso described the decision as a “mortal” wound to his empire. He would step down as head of various companies that same year.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
The new Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard, right, is congratulated by former Quebec premier Jean Charest March 17, 2013 at the leadership convention in Montreal.
Thursday’s revelations came fast and furious at the end of the afternoon session, capping off a day that was slow to pick up steam. The commissioners spent much of the morning behind closed doors trying to determine what inquiry chief counsel Sonia LeBel could and could not ask Accurso about his vacations on his luxury yacht, the Touch, without compromising his right to a fair trial in the ongoing criminal cases against him. It was noon before he even took the stand.
When he did, he quickly established that “no provincial minister, no federal minister, no federal MP, no provincial MNA” ever stepped foot on the boat. That includes former family minister Tony Tomassi, Accurso said, who was alleged to have visited the Touch at least once.
One surprise guest who did party on the boat, however, was Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. His name is apparently on the lengthy list of people who were invited onto the now-infamous Touch — a list that also includes the former chair of Montreal’s executive committee, local union presidents, and small-town mayors. It is unclear when Jagger boarded the Touch, or how he became Accurso’s guest.
On Thursday afternoon, Accurso was again questioned at length about his ties to union executives Jean Lavallée and Michel Arsenault. After repeated attempts by LeBel to pry an answer out of the witness, he finally acknowledged that his friendships with the men may have resulted in one notable advantage.
“The only advantage of my contact with those people is that if I had (an issue on a) project, they were able to say: take that file from the bottom of the pile and move it to the top if it’s urgent.”
The only time that happened, Accurso testified, was when he acquired construction company Simard-Beaudry.