Owner of collapsed mall loses bid to have taxpayers foot his inquiry bill

TORONTO – The owners of a mall that collapsed in northern Ontario were denied funding on Thursday to participate in the public inquiry into the tragedy.

In his ruling, Commissioner Paul Belanger said Bob Nazarian and his son Levon Nazarian had not shown why Ontario taxpayers should pay their legal bills.

“Applicants seeking funding must be forthright and provide the commission with a clear picture of their net worth,” Belanger said in his ruling.

“In my view, their evidence is wholly deficient.”

Under the rules, it is up to Belanger to recommend to the attorney general whether the province should pick up the tab for parties to take part in the inquiry.

In their application for funding, the Nazarians argued the Algo Centre mall in Elliot Lake was their main source of income. They said they faced multimillion-dollar civil suits in relation to the collapse which, among other things, allege complaints about the structure were ignored.

As a result, they said, they did not have any money to fund their participation in the inquiry.

“I cannot agree,” Belanger said.

“It is impossible to arrive at the most rudimentary estimate of their current financial situation.”

Belanger also noted that he had some evidence of “various large sums” transferred into Bob Nazarian’s bank account without any explanation of the source.

The inquiry is probing the collapse of the mall on June 23. Part of the rooftop garage caved in, killing Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, and injuring several others.

In all, 18 people and organizations — including relatives of the two women — had applied for formal recognition by the inquiry, which is due to start hearing evidence in the new year. Belanger granted full or partial standing to 14 of them.

The victims’ families were among four parties granted full standing in addition to a recommendation for funding.

Others given full standing were the government of Ontario, the city of Elliot Lake, and the Elliot Lake Mall Action Committee, which speaks for those who were injured, stores that operated in the mall, and their employees.

The group argues constant leaks and pieces of falling cement were unheeded warning signs of the collapse. The mall owners say the structure passed all inspections and they had paid for repairs as needed.

Among eight parties Belanger granted standing only for Part 1 of the inquiry — looking at events up to the date of the collapse — are the Nazarians, Ontario building officials and engineers.

Standing only for Part 2 — which will look at the aftermath, including the emergency response — was given to firefighters and the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.

Belanger also said he would recommend funding for Elliot Lake, the action committee, and the Ontario Building Officials Association.

He also recommended the province consider helping to defray the extra expenses incurred by lawyers who have to travel to Elliot Lake, saying it was “essential” the inquiry be held in the town west of Sudbury, Ont.

Belanger turned down four parties for standing, among them the Victim Services of Algoma and a seniors group, which agreed to work with the action committee.

In its standing application, the city argued the collapse had nothing to do with “error, omission or breach of duty” on its part, but said the municipality was “vitally interested” in the outcome of the inquiry.

Ontario said a team of at least five lawyers would participate in the probe, and promised to ensure relevant documents would be handed over to the commission.