Ex-employee: Mall owner slave-driving, unethical boss who ignored safety

ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. – A former manager of the ill-fated Algo Centre Mall accused its owner of being an unethical, slave-driving employer and sleazy landlord, a public inquiry heard Friday.

In her letter of resignation displayed at the inquiry, Henri Laroue laid out numerous grounds for quitting May 3, 2011, one year before the mall’s roof caved in killing two women.

Among them, Laroue complained she was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 358 (sic) days a year. Despite being called in regularly, she said, she received no extra money.

“When I spoke to you in regards to this fact that I am sometimes working 60 hours per week yet I am in trouble if I am one day late, you advised that you could make me work 90 hours per week,” she wrote in the letter.

“If I am sick one day, this day’s pay is deducted from my pay.”

In response, Bob Nazarian, on his fourth day testifying into the mall’s collapse last summer, said his former employee was dishonest.

Laroue, who testified without a lawyer in May, also accused him in her letter of ordering her to break into a tenant’s store to change the locks.

Nazarian, 68, of Richmond Hill, Ont., played fast and loose with safety rules, she said.

He had ordered her to leave the hotel unstaffed at night — which would be illegal — and told her to ignore orders to comply with the fire code because they had taken enough of her time.

“This is very disheartening to realize your priorities do not include a safe work environment,” she wrote.

Nazarian defended himself as an honourable businessman who never did anything illegal.

He did concede to commission counsel Peter Doody that he did not comply with fire regulations for years.

Efforts to stop the mall roof from leaking had failed, Nazarian explained, so any new fireproofing would have washed away again.

Nazarian said his company was in financial straits because a new hotel in town had drawn away business and mall tenants were leaving or refusing to pay rent over the appalling conditions.

“We were trying to cut corner, it was management decision,” Nazarian said, his voice rising.

“Fire department, every day, was sneaking into the mall, with permission or without permission, finding an excuse, giving us an order, ‘Do it or else’.”

Nazarian, who bought the mall in 2005, later pleaded guilty to fire-code infractions and paid a fine.

As has been the case throughout his testimony, Nazarian clashed frequently with Doody.

After one exchange, Nazarian asked Commissioner Paul Belanger to call a break.

“I have a severe headache. I cannot take this kind of harassment from Mr. Doody,” he said.

Nazarian has made the startling admission he did have money to fix the roof, but opted to buy another property because the mall was a financial “black hole” that was “doomed” from the outset.

While some in town called for Nazarian to be charged criminally, others were more measured.

As she sat on the wooden inquiry room bench, resident Elaine Miller said it was a “touchy situation” because the disaster was 30 years in the making.

“We have said: ‘Some day it’ll come down,” Miller said.

“Yet we all continued to go, we all continued to bring our children there.”

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