Stephen Harper's top two ministers in Quebec intervened on behalf of the Montreal Port Authority after they were told the Prime Minister's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, was interfering with the board's efforts to appoint a new president, The Globe and Mail has learned.
Michael Fortier, the minister of public works and the Conservative lieutenant for Montreal at the time, said his office contacted port officials in 2007 and urged them to disregard any political pressure, after learning that Mr. Soudas was lobbying the board to appoint a Montreal engineer, Robert Abdallah, as head of the port.
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.
"I asked my office to send the message that the Prime Minister did not have a preferred choice and that the selection of a new president was up to the board of directors and its members," Mr. Fortier told The Globe and Mail in an interview. He said he got involved after being told that Mr. Soudas discussed Mr. Abdallah's candidacy with board members at a Montreal restaurant.
Mr. Fortier's comments, obtained as part of a joint investigation by The Globe and Radio-Canada, amount to an unusual rebuke by a former cabinet minister who felt actions by Mr. Harper's staff did not reflect positions staked out by the Prime Minister.
Bernard Côté, a former staffer in Mr. Fortier's office, said Mr. Soudas called him afterward and told him to back off.
"The tone was aggressive and there were no pleasantries exchanged," Mr. Côté said. "He asked me why I was getting involved in the Prime Minister's nominations."
Mr. Soudas insisted Tuesday he did nothing wrong, and that the federal government merely indicated its preference for Mr. Abdallah. The board ultimately chose a different candidate, Patrice Pelletier, who was president of L-3 Communications SPAR Aerospace Ltd..
"There was no interference whatsoever," he said. "We expressed a preference and made it crystal clear that the decision was ultimately for the Board of Directors of the Port of Montreal to take."
However, in sworn testimony before the Commons Operations Committee in 2008, Mr. Soudas said that he "did not remember" contacting board members on the matter of Mr. Abdallah's candidacy, and denied even meeting board members on the issue.
Mr. Soudas was not the only one who wanted Mr. Abdallah, a one-time Director General of the City of Montreal, appointed president of the port. Controversial construction industry boss Antonio Accurso was also supportive of Mr. Abdallah's candidacy. Mr. Accurso's construction firms recently pleaded guilty to tax evasion, and he has generated headlines for his close ties to a number of union and political officials in Quebec, several of whom vacationed on his luxury yacht.
Among these was Montreal councillor Frank Zampino, who also pushed for Mr. Abdallah to head the port. Mr. Zampino was criticized for going on Mr. Accurso's yacht amid a controversy surrounding the city's ballooning water-metering contract – a contract that was ultimately awarded to a group including Mr. Accurso.
In an interview, Mr. Accurso denied any involvement in the lobbying effort at the port. After his failed bid for the president's job, Mr. Abdallah went on to work for Gastier Inc., a company that is part of Mr. Accurso's business empire.
The port presidency is a powerful role, overseeing an operation that generates $2-billion in annual economic activity. At the time of the executive search, the port was also planning to spend $2.5-billion as part of a massive expansion plan dubbed Vision 2020. Several Montreal business groups at the time were seeking to purchase port land for private development.
Mr. Fortier was not the only senior Quebec conservative uncomfortable with Mr. Soudas's lobbying. Foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, who at the time headed the transport portfolio, advised port chairman Marc Bruneau to stick to his principles after hearing complaints of political pressure, Mr. Bruneau said in an interview.
"There are two ministers who were really fair: Mr. Cannon and Mr. Fortier. They said, 'Do what you have to do,' " Mr. Bruneau said, adding the message was "to follow the Canada Marine Act and select the best candidate."
A spokesperson for Mr. Cannon declined to comment.
Despite this support, long-standing members of the board said they continued to feel pressured, and agreed to organize a second set of interviews that included Mr. Abdallah, who had initially failed to make the short list, according to sources. Two board members said some of this pressure was coming from Conservative appointees to the board.
The board has seven members. The city of Montreal, the Quebec government and the federal government each get to appoint one director, while Ottawa has the additional responsibility of naming four members who represent the users of the port.
The board obtained a legal opinion stating that once members are nominated, they have the responsibility to act independently, according to their assessment of the port's interest, without discussing matters with government officials, court documents show.
The battle for control of the port began in 2006, when Dominic Taddeo announced his plan to retire after more than two decades at the helm.
Soon after, Mr. Soudas met with three port board members at a restaurant in Montreal called Le Muscadin.
"There certainly was interference as they met us on the specific issue of the nomination of the new president. They tried to interfere, for sure," said Mr. Bruneau, a Conservative fundraiser in the Mulroney and Charest eras.
The arm-twisting continued. After the restaurant meeting, Mr. Bruneau said he was warned by a Conservative ministerial staffer, whom he felt was relaying a message from a superior, that his position was at stake if he refused to jump on the bandwagon.
"I was told directly they'd think twice before renewing my nomination," said Mr. Bruneau, who only received a one-year extension to his mandate in 2008 instead of a three-year renewal. He is now back on the board, although as the provincial government's appointee.