Stephen Maher, Postmedia News | October 4, 2013 10:03 PM ET
A letter warning in stark language against the appointment of Arthur Porter to oversee Canada’s spy agency in 2008 appears to have gone unheeded or unnoticed by the prime minister’s office at the time.
Porter is now in Panama’s La Joya prison awaiting extradition to Canada, where he is accused of defrauding the McGill University Health Centre by taking bribes from former executives at engineering firm SNC Lavalin as part of a $22.5-million kickback scheme. Porter, who has lung cancer, says he is innocent, and the charges have not been tested in court.
Just a year and a half ago, he was living in luxury in Montreal, running the hospital, socializing with politicians and travelling the world meeting with spymasters from allied nations.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Porter head of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) on Sept. 3, 2008, giving him access to Canada’s most carefully guarded secrets, including information shared with Canadian spies by American and British intelligence agencies. In June 2010, Harper made him chairman of the five-member committee. SIRC’s job is to review operations of Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, by providing civilian oversight of operations and handling appeals from citizens who feel they have been mistreated by the agency. He stepped down amid controversy in 2011.
The PMO won’t comment on the reasons he was initially appointed, but at the time Porter was popular with the Liberal government in Quebec, which was impressed by his work getting the McGill hospital built; and with Conservatives such as Sen. David Angus, who sat on the hospital’s board.
As required by law, the PMO wrote to the leaders of the NDP, the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois asking for their input on Porter’s appointment to the spy agency overview committee.
The Liberals and NDP raised no objections, saying they lacked information, but on Feb. 1, 2008, then-Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe wrote to Harper to oppose the appointment on the basis of Porter’s record during a period when he worked in Detroit. Duceppe pointed to “numerous problems: conflicts of interest, bad management and threatened guardianship.”
“Unless the checks carried out by the government have led to the convincing rejection of these allegations, I am obliged to reject the proposed nomination,” he wrote.
Duceppe’s letter was based on revelations from 2004 investigative stories in L’Actualite medicale, a Quebec medical publication, and Le Devoir, a Montreal daily. The stories quoted medical officials in Detroit who had raised concerns about Porter’s management of the Detroit Medical Center from 1999 to 2004, including allegations that he had an interest in a company that had received a $1 billion contract from the hospital. Porter was never sanctioned in relation to the controversy.
In spite of the warning from the Bloc, key officials with knowledge of Porter’s management of the Detroit Medical Center were not contacted during Porter’s security screening for the SIRC job, they told Postmedia News.
Nobody contacted Mike Duggan, who took over management of the hospital after Porter left; Nick Vitale, who was chief financial officer; Hassan Amirikia, former president of the medical society at the centre; or lawyer Oscar Feldman, who left the centre’s board and went public with his concerns about Porter’s alleged conflicts of interest.
John Crissman, then dean of the medical school at Michigan’s Wayne State University, spoke to Egon Zehnder International, the headhunting firm that recruited Porter to run the Montreal hospital, warning them about Porter’s track record in Detroit, but he said in an email that he doesn’t have “any recollection of a call from any Canadian government agency.”
In Ottawa, the Privy Council Office, citing privacy concerns, declined to say whether the Bloc letter, sent to Harper’s Parliament Hill office, was ever forwarded to the PCO officials in charge of vetting Porter.
The PMO also won’t say whether it forwarded the letter from Duceppe to officials.
“Arthur Porter resigned two years ago,” spokesman Jason MacDonald said in an email. “The allegations against him have no connection to the federal government.”
A former senior federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “correspondence in a political office would not routinely be forwarded” to officials. In contrast, a former senior political staffer said the letter likely ended up on Harper’s desk, and it was very unlikely Harper would have withheld it from officials.
Yet emails obtained under access-to-information laws suggest the Bloc’s concerns about Porter’s background in Detroit may not have been passed on to security officials — or were discounted.
On Nov. 7, 2011, National Post reporter Brian Hutchinson emailed the Privy Council Office to ask about Porter’s appointment. Hutchinson had discovered that Porter was involved in an infrastructure deal with the governments of Sierra Leone, Russia and controversial Montrealer Ari Ben-Menashe, an international lobbyist.
The news that Ben-Menashe and Porter were seeking a $200 million infrastructure deal with the Russians led to Porter’s resignation from SIRC within days.
On Nov. 7, after Hutchinson emailed with his question, Joyce Henry, then the director of appointments at PCO, asked an adviser, Tamara Ford, to check the file on his appointment .
“There were no appointment-process related red flags raised,” Ford wrote back to Henry.
Yet the letter from Duceppe would certainly have raised red flags if it had been passed along, says Penny Collenette, who was director of appointments in Liberal Jean Chretien’s PMO and is now a law professor at the University of Ottawa.
“I am surprised,” she said. “I can only imagine in this case, the information from Mr. Duceppe might have been discounted because (the PMO) wanted to barrel ahead with the appointment or because of political reasons not necessarily to do with the appointment itself. That’s a shame because there was actual information there that would have been helpful to the government.”
David Harris, a former chief of strategic planning for CSIS, said in an interview that a thorough security vetting would have uncovered facts about Porter’s Detroit career that would have constituted red flags.
“There seem to have been some issues that might have raised questions about the fundamental pillars of a security clearance: loyalty and reliability,” he said.
Ron Atkey, a former Progressive Conservative MP from Toronto who in 1984 was appointed the first chairman of SIRC, said in an interview that if CSIS had uncovered troubling information about Porter’s past, it would have passed the information on and let the prime minister decide what to do with it.
“It could have been … some information was turned up, but someone in the prime minister’s office said, well that’s fine,” he said. “Interesting to know but that does not disqualify him in our opinion for taking on this job.
“That’s not CSIS. CSIS has done its job. So I don’t want to point the finger, but one should ask, what did the prime minister’s office know when the appointment was made of Porter?”
Retired intelligence officials say that the security clearance level required for appointment to SIRC was too low at the time of Porter’s appointment: the same level that applies to cabinet ministers, not the tougher level required for most officials who deal with official secrets.
Porter, and the other appointees, received a background check through databases maintained by RCMP, CSIS, the Canada Revenue Agency and the Superintendent of Bankruptcy, and interviews with references.
After the National Post revealed Porter’s African business deal with the Russians, and he resigned from SIRC, the government made the process much tougher.
New Brunswick businessman Denis Losier, who was appointed at the same time as Porter in 2008, recently went through a second round of security clearances.
“This time around, it was much, much more extensive,” he said. “I just went through it four or five months ago.”
While Porter served on SIRC he had access to files concerning sensitive matters such as domestic extremism, then accused Canadian terrorist Omar Khadr, accused Russian spy Paul Hampel, and Canada’s relationship with overseas intelligence agencies.
Former intelligence agents say nobody has suggested Porter passed secrets to foreign intelligence agents, but former Liberal leader Bob Rae, who himself has served on SIRC, says Porter should never have seen any of those files.
“It’s one of these Catch 22s,” he said. “I know what I know and I would certainly be uncomfortable with somebody like Dr. Porter having access to the same information.”
Even Porter’s lawyer, Ricardo Bilonick Paredes, says he finds it odd that while Porter is now in prison, he was cleared by Canadian officials for duty with SIRC.
“That’s one of my questions,” he said. “How could a guy that is naturalized, because he was born in Sierra Leone, be appointed to such a high position and then all of a sudden he turns out to be a crook? It’s very strange. Usually, if you have all those good qualities that he has, you remain a good person.”
Paredes said Porter believed his security screening was “thorough,” but said he didn’t want to discuss it while he is incarcerated.
Porter has been working on a book about his life with Ottawa freelance journalist Jeff Todd.