Thursday, 21 April 2011

Ministers intervened after Harper spokesman lobbied Montreal Port Authority

Ministers intervened after Harper spokesman lobbied Montreal Port Authority
Stephen Harper’s top two ministers in Quebec intervened on behalf of the Montreal Port Authority after they were told the Prime Minister’s spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, was interfering with the board’s efforts to appoint a new president, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Michael Fortier, the minister of public works and the Conservative lieutenant for Montreal at the time, said his office contacted port officials in 2007 and urged them to disregard any political pressure, after learning that Mr. Soudas was lobbying the board to appoint a Montreal engineer, Robert Abdallah, as head of the port.

While the federal government directly appoints the presidents of many agencies, the Canada Marine Act clearly states the port’s board has sole responsibility for the appointment of its president.

... Mr. Fortier’s comments, obtained as part of a joint investigation by The Globe and Radio-Canada, amount to an unusual rebuke by a former cabinet minister who felt actions by Mr. Harper’s staff did not reflect positions staked out by the Prime Minister.

Bernard Côté, a former staffer in Mr. Fortier’s office, said Mr. Soudas called him afterward and told him to back off.

“The tone was aggressive and there were no pleasantries exchanged,” Mr. Côté said. “He asked me why I was getting involved in the Prime Minister’s nominations.”

... The arm-twisting continued. After the restaurant meeting, Mr. Bruneau said he was warned by a Conservative ministerial staffer, whom he felt was relaying a message from a superior, that his position was at stake if he refused to jump on the bandwagon.

“I was told directly they’d think twice before renewing my nomination,” said Mr. Bruneau, who only received a one-year extension to his mandate in 2008 instead of a three-year renewal.
This sounds like more than lobbying. Lobbying doesn't usually involve threats, does it?

Soudas's response:
Mr. Soudas insisted Tuesday he did nothing wrong, and that the federal government merely indicated its preference for Mr. Abdallah. The board ultimately chose a different candidate, Patrice Pelletier, who was president of L-3 Communications SPAR Aerospace Ltd..

“There was no interference whatsoever,” he said. “We expressed a preference and made it crystal clear that the decision was ultimately for the Board of Directors of the Port of Montreal to take.”

However, in sworn testimony before the Commons Operations Committee in 2008, Mr. Soudas said that he “did not remember” contacting board members on the matter of Mr. Abdallah’s candidacy, and denied even meeting board members on the issue.
If he lied in sworn testimony, what happens next?

Why would Soudas--or Harper, presumably, since Soudas wouldn't have any power over board appointments on his own--have such a strong interest in this in the first place?
The port presidency is a powerful role, overseeing an operation that generates $2-billion in annual economic activity. At the time of the executive search, the port was also planning to spend $2.5-billion as part of a massive expansion plan dubbed Vision 2020. Several Montreal business groups at the time were seeking to purchase port land for private development.
Harper certainly doesn't have any scruples about using the levers of government to benefit the Conservative Party, and then lying about it (for example). But we don't have all the pieces of this particular puzzle yet.

The Globe and Mail article notes:
Mr. Soudas was not the only one who wanted Mr. Abdallah, a one-time Director General of the City of Montreal, appointed president of the port. Controversial construction industry boss Antonio Accurso was also supportive of Mr. Abdallah’s candidacy. Mr. Accurso’s construction firms recently pleaded guilty to tax evasion, and he has generated headlines for his close ties to a number of union and political officials in Quebec, several of whom vacationed on his luxury yacht.

Among these was Montreal councillor Frank Zampino, who also pushed for Mr. Abdallah to head the port. Mr. Zampino was criticized for going on Mr. Accurso’s yacht amid a controversy surrounding the city’s ballooning water-metering contract – a contract that was ultimately awarded to a group including Mr. Accurso.

In an interview, Mr. Accurso denied any involvement in the lobbying effort at the port. After his failed bid for the president’s job, Mr. Abdallah went on to work for Gastier Inc., a company that is part of Mr. Accurso’s business empire.

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