ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. – The owner of a northern Ontario mall that collapsed last June had no regard for public safety and saw himself as the victim of a conspiracy to deprive him of the facility, one of his former employees alleges.
Documents filed at the public inquiry into the tragedy show the former manager of the Algo Centre Mall and its adjoining hotel in Elliot Lake, Ont., quit after claiming owner Bob Nazarian pressed her to break the law.
The allegations — which have not been tested by the inquiry and denied by Nazarian — come in a statement Henri Laroue gave in May 2011 to Paul Officer, the town’s fire chief.
“It is very concerning … when lives are at stake and Mr. Nazarian has blatant disregard to provide adequate safety measures in his hotel and mall,” Laroue said in her statement.
“Mr. Nazarian has always tried to take short cuts.”
Reached at his home in Richmond Hill, Ont., on the weekend, Nazarian initially refused to comment, accusing the media of “twisting these things and making them negative.”
He did go on to deny Laroue’s allegations.
“It’s not true,” he said. “The truth will come out.”
Laroue, who also went by her former name McCleery, resigned her job of four years in May 2011, saying Nazarian had asked her to commit two break and enters, although she did not elaborate.
She said she worried about her legal liability, especially after finding burnt mattresses on one floor and knowing fire alarms weren’t working even though people smoked in the non-smoking building.
Asked about her allegations, Nazarian said Laroue had done “a lot of negative stuff.” He did not explain.
“We have never done anything illegal,” he insisted.
Laroue’s statement was part of a long-running battle over fire-safety compliance. The city had tried unsuccessfully for months to have Nazarian remedy a series of deficiencies related to the fire-alarm and sprinkler systems.
Nazarian would not comply with the orders, Laroue said.
“He did the exact opposite,” she said. “He would not allow us to.”
Nazarian, she said, maintained the fire department was “obviously fabricating” the fire-code deficiencies.
According to the statement, Nazarian told her the city and fire department were conspiring to drive up costs related to the mall so that he would lose the facility, although why he might have thought so is not clear.
“Bob advised that he would not let that happen, so I was advised not to waste time or money following the fire department’s directions on the inspection reports,” she said.
Nazarian’s lawyer, Michael Title, said his client had made what was “likely some off-the-cuff” comments.
“To call it a conspiracy is probably just quoting a frustrated remark,” Title said from Toronto.
Shortcuts Nazarian took, Laroue said, included using wood instead of steel studs in walls, having unqualified maintenance staff do electrical work, and plugging in baseboard heaters rather than fix the heating systems.
In March 2012, three months before two women died in the mall’s roof-top garage collapse, Nazarian pleaded guilty to two fire-code charges and paid an agreed $5,000 fine.
Nazarian, who in September 2008 had declared a personal net worth of $12 million, was given a year to pay.
On Monday, the architect who designed the mall in 1979 is scheduled to testify at Week 2 of the inquiry under Commissioner Paul Belanger, who is probing the garage-collapse tragedy.
While witnesses have described decades of leaks that rusted support beams and damaged concrete, some allege the mall went downhill rapidly under Nazarian’s ownership, which began in 2005, something he denies.
“I worked very hard in this mall,” Nazarian said.
Nazarian, who is slated to testify in about four or five weeks, faces a contempt citation in Divisional Court on March 20 for failing to turn over documents demanded by the commission.