Arthur Porter once hinted that if he was dragged back to Canada to face justice, he would have many secrets to reveal. With his arrest in Panama and imminent return to this country, at least one prominent former ally is running for political cover while adversaries stir the pot.
Dr. Porter, once the toast of Montreal for his deft stickhandling of a project to construct an immense hospital in the city, sat in detention in Panama Tuesday while officials prepared to launch extradition proceedings to Canada to face trial on charges of money laundering, fraud, accepting bribes and conspiracy.
Dr. Porter is accused, along with five others, of plotting with executives of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. to use $22.5-million in company funds for an international kickback scheme in connection with the company’s construction of the $1.3-billion hospital.
Thousands of kilometres from Dr. Porter’s central American cell, Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard headed off on an unannounced tour of the Gaspé Peninsula in the far eastern part of the province, avoiding more embarrassing questions about his ties to Dr. Porter, a man who became a friend and business associate and ascended to the top of the province’s medical establishment under Mr. Couillard’s watch as health minister.
“Mr. Couillard has to give explanations about his business relationship and his friendship with Mr. Porter,” said Quebec Health Minister Réjean Hébert. “It’s important that the population be told what was going on.
“I don’t have any suspicions about Mr. Couillard but Mr. Porter was his best friend, he was an associate, so he has to give explanations.”
François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, also said Mr. Couillard needs to dissipate any doubts. Mr. Legault, a former businessman, said partners are not chosen lightly and Mr. Couillard hasn’t been forthcoming about all he knew of Mr. Porter’s activities.
“When you start a business with somebody and you are shareholders of the same company, usually you have confidence [in that person] and you are very close to him,” Mr. Legault said. “At least you would know about the integrity of the person. You don’t just associate yourself with anybody.”
How close Mr. Couillard was to Mr. Porter remains a mystery, but the two appear to have had a closer friendship than Mr. Couillard has been willing to acknowledge.
Footage appeared last winter showing Mr. Couillard and Mr. Porter giving a conference together at McGill University in October, 2011. “Arthur and I have been very close friends since we first met in 2003,” Mr. Couillard is heard saying on tape.
Liberals have been anxious about a photo that circulated widely on the Internet of Mr. Porter and Mr. Couillard fly-fishing together in 2010 at an exclusive resort at the invitation of the New Brunswick government.
The two men were appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the Privy Council and to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the spy watchdog agency in Ottawa. Officials there have been unwilling to provide much detail on how Dr. Porter so quickly became enmeshed in the security establishment.
“These allegations have no connection to his role in the federal government,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said in the House of Commons Tuesday.
Panamanian officials have revealed no timeline for Dr. Porter’s return to Canada; the two countries have an extradition treaty.
Dr. Porter was arrested at his hotel in Panama Monday after officials established he could not use his Sierra Leone passport to claim diplomatic immunity, according to the country’s Ministry of Public Security. He was born in Sierra Leone and is also a Canadian citizen. Dr. Porter’s wife, Pamela Porter, 53, had been arrested the night before. She faces charges of conspiracy and money laundering.
The couple had tickets to Trinidad and Tobago when they were detained, officials in Panama say.
Both are being held in jail. Dr. Porter, 57, has said he has diagnosed himself with terminal cancer. Recent photos and video circulating in the media showed he had lost weight since he left Canada. Some of the images showed him using tanked oxygen to help him breathe. The oxygen wasn’t present in photos released by Panamanian authorities of police taking him to jail.
With files from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa