The RCMP is probing allegations that members of the Quebec construction industry tried to use Conservative contacts all the way up to the Prime Minister’s Office in a bid to influence the choice of a new president of the Montreal Port Authority, police sources said.
The matter erupted during the spring election as The Globe and Mail and Radio-Canada laid out a series of efforts by PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas and other federal officials in favour of the candidacy of a former municipal bureaucrat in Montreal, Robert Abdallah.
The opposition launched allegations of corruption in federal nominations, pointing to alleged backroom dealings by Montreal businessmen Bernard Poulin and Antonio Accurso in the file.
Regarding the Port of Montreal, Conservative and federal officials have detailed a number of interventions by Mr. Soudas, who was Mr. Harper’s long-time spokesman, in favour of Mr. Abdallah.
Mr. Abdallah had not made the initial short list, but was invited back for a second round of interviews in the summer of 2007, sources said. Still, he failed to get the Port appointment after Conservative ministers and board members bucked the PMO directive and parallel efforts by the City of Montreal.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted on the campaign trail that Mr. Soudas’s efforts were “normal,” but the opposition raised allegations that Mr. Poulin and Mr. Accurso hired Conservative organizer Leo Housakos to intervene on the file because of his close political ties to Mr. Soudas.
“There are serious allegations of corruption here that involve the office of the Prime Minister and his close entourage,” then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said during the election campaign.
Mr. Housakos, Mr. Poulin, Mr. Accurso and Mr. Soudas refused to comment on the matter on Monday.
Sources said Mr. Soudas and an aide to then-transport-minister Lawrence Cannon expressed a clear preference for Mr. Abdallah at a meeting in a restaurant in Montreal in the spring of 2007 with the board members in charge of the nomination at the Port, as well as outgoing president Dominic Taddeo.
Conservative sources have detailed other interventions by Mr. Soudas throughout the nomination process, up to the moment in September when the City of Montreal ousted its representative on the board because she refused to back Mr. Abdallah.
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.
Earlier this year, Mr. Soudas said he never received any compensation or felt any outside influence as part of the nomination process at the Montreal Port Authority.
“The Prime Minister’s Office is padlocked for anyone who wants to influence any decision,” said Mr. Soudas, who has since left the PMO and is working with the Canadian Olympic Committee.
The PMO said it encourages federal officials to co-operate with investigators.
“We are not aware of any questions to federal officials. If asked for help about something affecting their work, they should help,” said PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall.
In addition to the RCMP investigation, the Sûreté du Québec confirmed on Monday that it is investigating the alleged illegal interception of phone calls. Sources said that Mr. Accurso, Mr. Poulin and Mr. Housakos have filed complaints to the police about recordings that were uploaded anonymously on the Internet.
In 2008, Mr. Harper faced opposition allegations that Mr. Housakos and Mr. Soudas both intervened – in apparently uncoordinated efforts – in favour of a Montreal real-estate firm that was involved in legal battles with Ottawa. Mr. Harper appointed Mr. Housakos to the Senate later that year.