Police are probing what they believe are links between Arthur Porter, Canada’s former spy watchdog, and a company that is at the centre of a massive alleged fraud at Montreal’s English-speaking hospital network.
Investigators have traced this company to a pale-yellow building in the Bahamas that serves as a branch of a Swiss bank – a bank branch that has a number of connections to Dr. Porter, two sources close to the probe have told The Globe and Mail.
This company, Sierra Asset Management Inc., has a registered address at the building but no operations. Sierra signed a contract with engineering firm SNC-Lavalin in 2009 to help the construction giant secure a deal to build a new facility for the McGill University Health Centre, a network of hospitals that Dr. Porter oversaw and managed for seven years.
Sierra has been something of a mystery since forensic auditors, called in by SNC-Lavalin’s board, uncovered the deal as part of an internal investigation at the company. SNC dispersed a total of about $22.5-million as part of its contract with Sierra, but auditors could not find any evidence of the work that was performed. Their findings led Quebec’s anti-corruption task force to charge two former high-ranking SNC executives in November, alleging they tried to disguise SNC’s contract with Sierra as a legitimate deal when in fact they knew Sierra had been hired for another purpose. But neither police nor SNC have publicly explained what Sierra Asset Management is or where it is located.
The Nassau address registered for Sierra is the same as the Bahamas office of Compagnie Bancaire Helvétique – a bank branch managed by a man Dr. Porter knows well, Hermann-Josef Hermanns. Dr. Porter has alluded, in the past, to using Mr. Hermann’s bank for his private businesses.
In 2011, when Dr. Porter was running the McGill University Health Centre and chairing Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee, he spoke with a National Post reporter about his relationship with Mr. Hermanns, and explained that some of his businesses were “associated” with Mr. Hermanns’ Nassau bank. Dr. Porter and Mr. Hermanns are also business partners; they have been identified as the principals of a solar-power company in a lawsuit that has been filed against the company in Toronto.
The bank is a few kilometres from Dr. Porter’s private cancer clinic in the Bahamas, where he now resides with his family. Sierra Asset Management’s name is also reminiscent of Dr. Porter’s place of birth, the west African country of Sierra Leone.
Dr. Porter – who resigned as the chief executive of the hospital network shortly after reports that he had entered into a commercial relationship with a former accused arms dealer – has denied he has anything to do with the small fortune SNC allegedly paid out in connection with the hospital contract. “I don’t know anything about this,” he told the CBC this month in an on-camera interview in the Bahamas shortly after he announced, via a press release, that he has inoperable lung cancer. He has not been charged with a crime.
Dr. Porter and Mr. Hermanns did not return messages left for them by phone and e-mail.
Corporations domiciled in the Bahamas are not required to list the names of their owners in publicly available records. And in many offshore jurisdictions that have strict secrecy provisions such as the Bahamas, if people want to further conceal their involvement with a company they often enlist, for a fee, an official known as a nominee director who acts as a contact person for the company, but in fact knows little or nothing about its activities.
The Globe has learned, through a source, that an individual registered as a principal of Sierra is named Jeremy J. Morris. Facebook messages sent to a Jeremy Morris who indicated he lives in the Bahamas were not returned. A woman who answered the phone at a number registered to a Jeremy J. Morris said she was renting Mr. Morris’s house and had no idea how to reach him.
SNC declined to answer questions about Sierra or explain what rationale was given internally when the company’s former head of construction, Riadh Ben Aissa, allegedly paid millions of dollars to a mailbox company in the Bahamas for help with a Montreal construction contract. Along with Mr. Ben Aissa, SNC’s former CEO, Pierre Duhaime, has also been charged criminally in connection with the Sierra contract –– charges that have not been tested in court.
The forensic auditors that probed the Sierra deal said in a report that was publicly released – but did not identify Sierra by name – that they were unable to find any true principal behind the company.
According to records from the Bahamas, Sierra Asset Management was incorporated on Nov. 19, 2009 – more than seven months after SNC signed its deal with Sierra. A report ordered by The Globe on Sierra’s activities in the Bahamas states “there is no known operational office for the [company] in the country.”
Since he left Montreal in late 2011, Dr. Porter has become a lightning rod for criticism – a dramatic shift from how he was treated for most of his seven years in Quebec, where he held several prominent public and corporate posts. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed him to the civilian committee that investigates complaints about Canada’s spy agency, CSIS. In 2010, Mr. Harper made Dr. Porter the chair of the committee.
Now he is the target of three lawsuits, all claiming that he has defaulted on loan payments that were made to him while he was in Montreal. The Quebec government has also released a report accusing him of allowing the McGill University Health Centre to slip into financial disarray and has assigned the network of six hospitals a special financial overseer, a move the government says is one step short of trusteeship.