MONTREAL — A prominent Quebec construction magnate whose cosy ties to politicians and links to business figures have triggered various alleged scandals is facing six fraud-related charges in a case that could have far-reaching political repercussions.
Tony Accurso was among 14 people arrested by the anti-corruption unit of the Quebec provincial police in raids Tuesday that could lead to 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 the province for years involving municipal and provincial politicians and union bosses.
But the reclusive businessman had never been charged with anything until being swept up in an alleged bribery scandal in Mascouche, a small town in Montreal posh northern suburbs.
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.
He would also be able to argue that he created the anti-corruption unit and that it was fulfilling its mandate with the arrests.
Police are alleging that Accurso and others were involved in a system of kickbacks and bribes that were exchanged for favourable contracts or privileged information key to the bidding process. Authorities say the practice had been going on for several years.
Accurso faces six charges: fraud, conspiracy, influence-peddling, breach of trust and two counts of defrauding the government.
The 18-month investigation culminated with 14 arrests and a total of 47 charges.
Those apprehended include former Mascouche town manager Luc Tremblay and Normand Trudel, another construction business owner. An arrest warrant has also been issued for Mascouche Mayor Richard Marcotte, who is believed to be on holiday in the Caribbean.
Two firms, including one owned by Trudel, are also facing charges.
All of those arrested were to be released later Tuesday under various conditions and promises to appear at a later date.
“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.
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 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.
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.