When Arthur T. Porter blew into Montreal to run the McGill University Health Centre in 2004, a well-spoken, deal-making whirlwind touched down on the city. The oncologist deftly worked the city’s cocktail party circuit, forging close ties with some of Quebec’s most influential people and securing several high-profile private- and public-sector positions: landing a spot on the board of Air Canada; forging relationships with a former premier as well as a Quebec Liberal health minister; and lastly – the appointment for which he is best known because it was handed to him by Prime Minister Stephen Harper – chairing the civilian committee that oversees Canada’s spies and how they gather secrets.
With his colourful bowties, immense frame and the air of grandeur that peppers his speech (“It’s not the sort of things one does, it’s really what one has been able to accomplish”), he quickly charmed much of Montreal’s anglophone establishment before he resigned his position this time last year and left the country.
But the problem with forces of nature that powerful is that they leave unseen cracks after they head out of town, and it wasn’t until this week that Montrealers realized just how much of a mess Dr. Porter left behind.
On Tuesday, the Quebec government released the results of an audit that found the MUHC’s planned deficit of $12-million has ballooned to $115-million – a financial state so precarious that the hospital network has been assigned a special overseer to monitor its spending. The Health Ministry called the move one step short of trusteeship.
But that’s just the beginning of the MUHC’s problems. Quebec’s anti-corruption task force has also alleged that the hospital network was the victim of fraud in connection with its planned $1.3-billion superhospital, which is due to be unveiled in 2015. In November, police charged two former executives at SNC-Lavalin, the engineering firm that was awarded the contract during Dr. Porter’s tenure, with multiple criminal charges, including fraud and using falsified documents.
As for Dr. Porter, his exact whereabouts are unknown. A few months ago, reporters with La Presse traced him to a gated community in the Bahamas, where he runs a private cancer clinic. When McGill University recently sued him for $317,000, most of which was provided as part of a low-interest loan, it filed e-mail exhibits in court where he claimed he had returned to his native country, Sierra Leone. He has not responded to numerous requests for interviews from The Globe and Mail, including phone calls, e-mails and one letter.
Meanwhile, the MUHC has said publicly that it is reconsidering its choice of name for the main street running into the new superhospital – Arthur Porter Way.
But what was Arthur Porter’s way? Is he to blame for all of this?
The Globe interviewed numerous people from Montreal’s medical community, including doctors, former executives and former directors at the MUHC, who had dealings with Dr. Porter. Most of them agreed to interviews on the condition that they would not be identified, explaining that they had not been given permission to speak publicly about closed-door meetings. What emerged is a portrait of a man obsessed with cultivating relationships, so much so that he created an environment at the MUHC that allowed him to exert control over the people, namely the board of directors, who were supposed to keep him in check.
That description comes as no surprise to the medical community in Detroit, where Dr. Porter first cut his teeth as a hospital administrator.
A cautionary message
It was in 2003 when John Crissman, the dean of the medical school at Michigan’s Wayne State University, received a call from a headhunting team from Montreal.
Dr. Crissman’s message about Dr. Porter was straightforward: Proceed with caution.
“Dr. Porter is a talented administrator but often dilutes his efforts,” Dr. Crissman recalled saying, trying his best to diplomatically wave red flags about Dr. Porter’s web of private business pursuits around the globe. “I told them to be very careful about their agreement and to include language to control Arthur’s multiple outside interests.”
Throughout Dr. Porter’s tenure as the CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, where Dr. Crissman was a board member, the hospital was under constant financial strain. A Cambridge-educated oncologist, Dr. Porter had been vaulted into the role of CEO after a private consulting group recommended a massive overhaul of the hospital network, a non-profit corporation that struggled to bring in revenue while serving some of America’s poorest neighbourhoods.