Targeted by police, Elliot Lake mall owner discloses evidence

Bob Nazarian’s lawyer says “there is certainly no smoking gun” in the previously unsealed documents

Colin Perkel/CP

Bob Nazarian, left. (Colin Perkel/CP)

The Ontario real estate investor who owned Elliot Lake’s crumbling shopping mall when the roof collapsed—and who, more than two years later, remains the target of a criminal investigation—has agreed to disclose hundreds of pages of previously sealed evidence that should determine whether police finally lay charges or close the file.

As Maclean’s revealed last month, three search warrants executed by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) identify Asadoor “Bob” Nazarian as a prime suspect in the ongoing criminal probe of the Algo Centre cave-in, which killed two women and triggered a separate public inquiry that recently issued a scathing final report. The search warrants show that Nazarian, now 69, is being investigated for potential criminal negligence causing death for failing “to maintain the structural integrity” of the mall and for failing to “take sufficient steps to remedy known deficiencies” in the building’s notoriously leaky rooftop parking lot.

When police conducted their original raids in July 2012 (at Nazarian’s home in Richmond Hill, Ont., at his son’s RE/MAX real-estate brokerage, and at the company office inside the Algo mall), Nazarian’s Elliot Lake lawyer, Antoine-René Fabris, claimed solicitor-client privilege over every document that contained his firm’s letterhead. For 27 months, those files remained off-limits to authorities, forensically sealed in separate boxes.

Anxious for investigators to finally view those records, the Ontario attorney-general’s office launched a court application earlier this year, asking a judge to “review the seized documents in order to resolve and rule upon the issue” of whether they are indeed privileged. (Not all correspondence between a lawyer and client is automatically covered by privilege; only those records that specifically discuss legal advice, litigation or settlements are confidential.) A supporting affidavit signed by Det.-Const. Yvan Perron, the file co-ordinator for the OPP’s Elliot Lake investigation, said the sealed boxes contain at least 738 pages—and because police can’t see them, it’s impossible to know how relevant they may be or whether they include records already produced at the parallel public inquiry.

But with a court battle looming, the document dispute has been resolved. During a brief hearing in Sault Ste. Marie yesterday, prosecutor Marc Huneault said he and an OPP detective met with Fabris, and after opening the sealed boxes and reviewing the files, Nazarian’s lawyer continued to claim privilege over just seven of the documents. The rest are now part of the police investigation. “The Crown is of the view it need not pursue this matter further and I’m simply asking that the application be marked withdrawn,” Huneault told Justice Ian McMillan.

How the disclosure will affect the ongoing investigation remains to be seen. The OPP does not discuss active files, and Huneault declined an interview request from Maclean’s. But Fabris insists his client is not guilty of any criminal activity, that the OPP probe has been “a cloud hanging” over the entire Nazarian family, and that they’re anxious for a decision on charges—whatever that decision is. “The Crown is going to have to make up their mind soon, because I don’t think there is any more information out there that they haven’t looked at, that they haven’t weighed,” he says. “I expect in the very near future to have an announcement, one way or the other, whether they are proceeding or not.”

As for the contents of the previously sealed material, Fabris says most of the records are either standard accounting information or documents already released as part of the public inquiry. “I know from what they’ve obtained there is certainly no smoking gun,” he says. “If they thought they were going to get a smoking gun, there is nothing there.”

A portion of the Algo Centre’s rooftop parking lot collapsed on June 23, 2012, sending thousands of pounds of steel and concrete raining into the mall below. Two women did not survive the implosion: Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37. Last month, the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry issued its long-awaited report into the tragedy, an exhaustive, damning indictment that implicates a long list of characters, from shoddy inspectors to bumbling city officials to successive owners who knew the leaky roof was a potential structural risk but refused to pay for repairs. As commissioner Paul Bélanger concluded: “The real story behind the collapse is one of human, not material, failures.” Few escaped his scorn—including Bob Nazarian.

Originally from Iran, Nazarian purchased the mall in the summer of 2005 and spent the next seven years lying to everyone who expressed concern about the condition of the property: tenants, the city, mortgage providers, contractors and potential purchasers. At one point, Nazarian created a “sham” roofing company “to facilitate his scheme of convincing those who needed convincing” that he “recognized the seriousness of the roof leak problems and was taking steps to fix it. The truth is he was taking no such steps.”

“Bob Nazarian utterly failed in his role as the Algo Mall’s overseer and, in the process, put in jeopardy the lives and safety of his employees, tenants and customers,” Bélanger concluded. “His business dealings lacked scruple and integrity. I know these are strong words. There are no other, more charitable terms, unfortunately, to describe his behaviour.”

Fabris says Nazarian and his son, Levon, “didn’t appreciate” some of the commissioner’s remarks, but have refrained from commenting on the report until they know the outcome of the criminal investigation (which, again, is completely separate from the public inquiry). “They are going to have a reaction and they are going to make a statement in due course,” Fabris says. “You have to appreciate that there is still a criminal investigation going on, and from my perspective the less said the better. If and when the time comes that the Crown decides not to proceed, they will be making statements at that time.”

To date, only one person has been charged in connection with the collapse: Robert G.H. Wood, a once-respected Sault Ste. Marie engineer who was hired by Nazarian to inspect the mall just ten weeks before the collapse—and concluded that the rusty steel beams supporting the parking deck were “structurally sound.” (In his report, Bélanger compared Wood’s review “to that of a mechanic inspecting a car with a cracked engine block who pronounces the vehicle sound because of its good paint job.”) Wood also agreed to alter his inspection report, at Nazarian’s request, to remove a photo of a severely rusted beam and a reference to “ongoing” leakage. Arrested in January, he faces two counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

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