When his death from cancer was announced earlier this month, people still doubted that Arthur Porter, the bow-tied former CEO of Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre, had really died. After all, the “golden boy” with the silver tongue who was tarnished by a multimillion-dollar fraud scandal had spent two years languishing in a notorious Panama prison as he fought extradition back to Canada.
If anyone could pull a fast one, why not the man who prided himself on his ability to make an environment suit him rather than the other way around? And so members of Quebec’s anti-corruption unit trooped down to the tropical country to view the body, allaying the suspicions.
Dr. Porter was 59 when he died in a Panamanian hospital on June 30, an ignominious, sad and lonely end for a man who had found success far from his birthplace in Sierra Leone. At Cambridge, he was a star medical student. In the United States, where he ran a major medical centre in Detroit, he was a self-declared Republican who in 2001 refused an offer from then-president George W. Bush to become the next surgeon-general. In his 2014 memoir, The Man Behind the Bow Tie, Dr. Porter recalled getting a phone call soon after.
“Is that your final answer?” Mr. Bush reportedly asked him, lifting a line from Who Wants to be a Millionaire, at the time a popular TV game show.
Rotund, funny and occasionally pompous, Dr. Porter was everyone’s friend and nobody’s confidante, the life of the party and an agile dancer, both in political circles and around a ballroom floor. A member of Air Canada’s board of directors, he travelled the world for free. His former friend Prime Minister Stephen Harper had him sworn in as a member of the Privy Council so he could serve as chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, or SIRC, the country’s spy watchdog agency. And he was close to Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, a relationship that began in 2004 when the politician, a neurosurgeon by training, was provincial health minister. Like many of Dr. Porter’s friendships, theirs ended with the news of the hospital’s megacost overrun and a $22.5-million fraud inquiry connected to the MUHC’s decision to award the construction contract to a consortium led by the Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
“In a way, Arthur was like Icarus, who came crashing down to earth when his wax wings melted because he flew too close to the sun,” Jeff Todd, an Ottawa-based journalist who first met Dr. Porter in the Bahamas and co-authored the memoir, said.
“He told me that if he did anything wrong, it was to go way too fast,” Mr. Todd continued. “There was never a peak he didn’t want to climb and if there was a huge challenge, he always thought he would simply fly over it. But he couldn’t always do that.”
The first indication was in November, 2011, when the National Post revealed he had signed a commercial agreement the year before with Ari Ben-Menashe, a Montreal-based Israeli security consultant and arms dealer, all while he was head of both the MUHC and Canada’s spy watchdog. Mr. Ben-Menashe was to secure a $120-million grant from Russia for “infrastructure development” in Sierra Leone. In return, a company called the Africa Infrastructure Group, which was controlled by Dr. Porter’s family, would manage what he wrote were “bridges, dams, ferries and other infrastructure projects” built with the Russian money.
Within days, he was gone from SIRC. Less than a month later, he resigned from the MUHC, departing on the grounds that he had accomplished what he had set out to do in 2004: bring together a private-public partnership and get a long-dreamed-of facility built. Unbeknownst to the public at the time, under his watch, a planned project deficit of $12-million had somehow escalated to $115-million.
The following year, fraud charges were laid, but by then Dr. Porter was on to other projects and living in a gated community in the Bahamas, where he had maintained a home for years. After Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest, he and his wife, Pamela Mattock Porter, were detained June, 2013, by authorities at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. Despite claiming he could not be arrested because he was on a diplomatic mission for Sierra Leone, he was soon confined to overcrowded quarters in a wing reserved for foreigners in filthy La Joya prison. Toting an oxygen tank, he became known there as “Doc,” ministering to inmates who included drug dealers and murderers. The man who had begun his ascent to the top as a doctor beloved by his patients would end at the bottom as a doctor beloved by his patients again.
He was smart, perhaps too smart for his own good, and affable, with an ability to zero in on the most powerful person in the room with laser-like focus. His long-time friend and former teacher Karol Sikora, who partnered with Dr. Porter in a Bahamian medical clinic and is also the medical director of their joint private health-care company, Cancer Partners UK, said he was uncannily good at getting people together everywhere he touched down, even if they had opposing views.
“People like that are rare and they are very good at running big institutions,” Dr. Sikora said. “Arthur reached the peak of his career in 2010, when he was all glowing and bigger than sliced bread. Then it all went wrong.”
Although Dr. Porter claimed the money from SNC was payment for other consulting work he’d done for them, his friend opined that the truth will probably never come out now.
“I’d like to think Arthur was never part of this monkey business, but we’ll never know,” he said.
Arthur Thomas Porter IV was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on June 11, 1956, a descendant of freed slaves. The first Arthur Porter, his great-great-great grandfather, arrived in Freetown from somewhere in Britain and married his great-great-great grandmother, a former slave from Nova Scotia, but the details of their story have been lost to time.
Young Arthur was named to carry on the tradition. His father, a noted historian and anthropologist also named Arthur, had met his mother, a Dane, when both were studying at Cambridge University.
In his memoir, Dr. Porter recalled growing up in a home where he and his sister, Emma, lacked for nothing, with an emphasis placed on good behaviour and better grades. His mother was everything: disciplinarian, cook and holder of hands. His father, a professor at Fourah Bay College, the country’s oldest university, was usually steeped in his books and stepped in only for serious family matters. But one rainy Sunday evening, he called them into his study.
“Arthur, Emma. The only careers I truly rate are the professions of doctor and lawyer,” he said. “It’s time to decide what you each want to be.”
Given first choice, his sister, who was two years younger, opted to become a lawyer. (She was eventually hired to work at Canada’s federal Justice Department, where she is still employed.)
“Arthur, you will be a doctor,” his father said.
And so he was. Neither white nor black, he might often have felt in limbo, but he used his mixed background to his advantage, whether he was fostering a sense of kinship with members of Detroit’s influential black community or as a Cambridge wonk with a posh accent, head for business and a penchant for bow ties.
In a lengthy profile in this newspaper in 2012, sources in Detroit and Montreal told reporters Greg McArthur and David Montero that Dr. Porter was wont to say flippantly: “I look black but I speak white.”
But there was more to it, namely, an inherent sense of privilege coupled with the need to prove that he could conquer obstacles with charm and finesse. In his memoir, he noted that as the mixed-race descendant of ex-slaves from the U.K. and Canada and the only son of an African father and a European mother, he often felt between worlds.
“My rather rich heritage and personal history have also served me well, however, since people have never quite known where to place me,” he wrote.
It was while he attended Cambridge that Dr. Porter embraced his signature look: Told he had to wear a tie for meals, he went to a second-hand store and bought a pound of them in a bag, unaware they were not the kind that hang neatly down a shirtfront.
He also met his wife there, moving in on her lunch table in a mess hall. The couple had four daughters whom he loved above all: Gemma, Fiona, Adina and Charlotte. (Unlike her husband, Ms. Porter was extradited back to Montreal; last December, she was sentenced to two years behind bars after pleading guilty to money laundering charges after much of the $11-million SNC Lavalin allegedly paid her husband in bribes was found in the account of a shell company in the Bahamas that she controlled. Released from prison, she is now reportedly living in a halfway house.)
Following his training in medical and radiation oncology, Dr. Porter moved to Canada, taking on positions such as senior specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and chief of radiation oncology at the London Regional Cancer Centre at the University of Western Ontario. In 1991, he moved south of the border to become radiation oncologist in chief and chairman of the Detroit Medical Center. Along the way, he established his pattern of accepting other positions and starting new ventures while working in a demanding job, including opening the Cancer Centre in Nassau.
In 1999, Dr. Porter was promoted to CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, one of the largest non-governmental employers in the region. And the accolades kept on coming: Two years later, he was named to a presidential commission that was reviewing the quality of health care provided by the national Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and in August, 2002, Michigan’s governor appointed him to a four-year term as chairman of the state’s Hospital Commission.
It was a heady time. But underneath, suspicions were roiling. People were put off by the fact he took on other major responsibilities while he was running the centre and he also got involved in some lawsuits. But when Quebec headhunters called, somehow Dr. Porter ended up on a short list of candidates to head up the fledgling MUHC project.
Eric Maldoff, a prominent Montreal lawyer and member of the MUHC search committee that reportedly pushed to omit Dr. Porter’s name from the list because of problems he’d had in Detroit, was diplomatic when The Globe and Mail contacted him this week.
“Arthur was a very energetic, smart, charming, strategic and driven person. He really wanted to be liked and he had a profound need for recognition,” Mr. Maldoff said. “The hospital is up and running and no doubt he played a crucial role in moving it forward. It’s a vast improvement over what we had before and it forms a very solid basis for the future.”
Others were not so kind. Responding to news of his death, the MUHC issued a terse statement that extended condolences to his family and offered no further comment, while Mr. Harper suspended the protocol that would have seen the Peace Tower flag fly at half-mast to mark the death of a Privy Council member.
In prison, living in unsanitary surroundings and denied proper treatment in a hospital for the cancer that many doubted he had, Dr. Porter, who leaves his father, sister, wife and four daughters, was outwardly still full of bravado until near the end.
“I just have to survive and make do,” he told CBC reporter Dave Seglins in a phone interview in March that revolved around his treatment at the prison and his successful complaint to the United Nations torture watchdog that his human rights were being trampled on. “[The] water, food, bedding and the fact that one has to urinate in a bucket shared by about 50 to 100 people … for someone who has an illness and needs treatment, it was pretty obvious, I presume, the UN clearly found in my favour.”
In addition, Dr. Porter continued, his raspy voice rising, he had not had a single court hearing in 22 months.
“I’ve never left here to go into the city. I have no idea what the inside of a courtroom looks like, not in Panama, Canada, the Bahamas or anywhere,” he cried. “I’ve never been to court in my life.”
In the end, though, he seemed to be aware that the stain to his reputation would not be erased, not even in death.
“My entire life has been devoted to climbing, winning and succeeding,” he wrote in his memoir. “But with the end drawing near, it is inevitable that I, like anyone else, wonder if what I have accomplished truly matters. I wonder how I will be remembered.”
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