Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Owner of mall ripped on stand

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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 and, despite being called in regularly, received no extra money.

"When I spoke to you... 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 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 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 rough financial straits, in part because mall tenants were leaving or refusing to pay rent over the appalling conditions.

"We were trying to cut corners; 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 later pleaded guilty to fire-code infractions and paid a fine.

As was the case throughout his testimony, Nazarian clashed frequently with Doody Friday, prompting him at one point to appeal to commissioner Paul Belanger for a time out.

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

Nazarian told his own lawyer, Michael Title, in cross-examination he was never told about the mall's problems when he bought it from Elliot Lake Retirement Living in August 2005.

A structural engineering report from May 1999 done for Retirement Living that noted "corrosion of steel beams" was never given to Nazarian, he said, nor was the recommended remedial work done.

In earlier testimony, Nazarian 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 Friday, 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.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 A26

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