The opposition laid out allegations of corruption and influence peddling by Conservative officials in relation to the nomination of a new president at the Montreal Port Authority, but the Harper government retorted “the file is over.”
Feeding off the launch of an RCMP investigation into the 2007 nomination, the NDP and Liberal Party said in Question Period Tuesday that senior members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s entourage were “up to their necks” in political interference.
Conservative Transport Minister Denis Lebel replied that there is no controversy, given the board of directors at the port did not select the candidate favoured by Conservative officials and senior members of Quebec’s construction industry.
In the House of Commons, NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice quoted from recordings of private conversations that have been anonymously uploaded on the Internet, in which businessmen Bernard Poulin and Antonio Accurso discuss plans to install a former Montreal bureaucrat at the port.
According to Mr. Boulerice, Mr. Poulin and Mr. Accurso spoke about hiring Conservative organizer Leo Housakos – now a senator – in order to favour the nomination of Robert Adballah at the port. Mr. Boulerice said the plan was to get Mr. Housakos to enlist his friend and ally Dimitri Soudas, who was a spokesman for Mr. Harper and a senior adviser on Quebec matters at the time.
“The stories of arm twisting and influence peddling are ongoing, and the Conservatives are not being of any help in trying to shine a light on what happened,” Mr. Boulerice said during Question Period.
His NDP colleague, Jamie Nicholls, said the RCMP is “officially investigating influence peddling.”
“If we listen to the records, we will hear talk of payoffs to Conservative senators and threats to members of the Montreal Port,” Mr. Nicholls said.
Still, Mr. Lebel said that there is no controversy, given that the board of directors eventually selected another candidate.
“The MP talks about influence in relation to Mr. Abdallah’s nomination. However, he was not appointed as president,” Mr. Lebel said. “The file is over.”
Liberal MP Denis Coderre retorted the board and Conservative ministers had to fight off a vigorous lobbying campaign in favour of Mr. Abdallah, and that the fact that he did not eventually get the position is irrelevant. Mr. Coderre described Mr. Housakos and Mr. Soudas as a “dynamic duo” that had been active on other files as well.
“An attempted infiltration is as serious as an actual infiltration,” Mr. Coderre said.
Mr. Lebel refused to deviate from his speaking points, reiterating that the government is not interested in rehashing old stories.
“As my colleague stated, Mr. Abdallah was not appointed to the port. That’s the crux of the matter,” the Transport Minister said.
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.
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.
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 on Monday.
In addition to the RCMP investigation, the Sûreté du Québec confirmed that it is investigating the alleged illegal interception of the 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.