The Canadian National Post newspaper is reporting that a Sierra Leonean national, Dr. Arthur Porter, has been arrested in Panama over allegations of fraud in his adopted country of Canada. Porter, who serves as Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Special Advisor to the Sierra Leone president, was one-time overseer of Canada’s spy agency. His arrest comes at a time when Sierra Leone’s diplomatic service has been riddled with corruption as foreign service personnel are accused of engaging in nefarious and disgraceful activities from selling official diplomatic car number plates, to using embassy offices as brothels. It seems authorities have turned a blind eye, as the former Director General of the country’s diplomatic service, Sulay Daramy, was recently appointed as Chief of Protocol at State House instead of being sacked after serious allegations of receiving bribes and intimidation of diplomatic staffs abroad.
Daramy, presided over a corrupt service where diplomats were requested to pay annual handouts to retain their postings or face recall. Sierra Leone’s reputation abroad is at serious risk of being damaged as appointments are not made on merit, but by political association or family affiliation. There are some outstanding diplomats who do an excellent job but have expressed concerns about how the service is run. Porter’s arrest is a serious reminder that those appointed to public or diplomatic office must desist from engaging in acts that will sabotage the country’s hard-earned international image.
Corruption is reported to be prevalent within government itself as the former Information Minister, Ibrahim Kargbo, is yet to account for hundreds of thousands of donor funds for important U.N. projects in the country. The country’s Anti-Corruption Commission has been unable to bring charges on Kargbo as he has since been appointed Special Advisor to the head of state.
Arthur Porter, the well-connected oncologist and hospital administer whom Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed three years ago to oversee Canada’s spy agency, was arrested with his wife in Panama on charges including fraud against the Quebec government relating to his alleged role in the handling of a $1.3-billion Montreal hospital construction and maintenance contract, awarded three years ago to scandal-plagued engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
The head of Quebec’s anti-corruption task force made the announcement Monday evening. In a written statement, Robert Lafreniere said the arrest was conducted after an investigation — code name Project Lauréat — by the Sureté du Québec, the RCMP and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).
Dr. Porter and his wife, Pamela Porter, are in police custody. Mrs. Porter is accused of handling the products of crime and conspiracy. Efforts are being made to extradite the couple to Canada, according to the statement.
Dr. Porter was accused by Quebec police in February of accepting illegal payments from two senior SNC-Lavalin executives; in exchange, the company allegedly landed the giant McGill University Hospital Centre (MUHC) project. The new hospital is under construction on Montreal’s west side.
At the time of the alleged fraud, from 2008 to 2011, Dr. Porter was the MUHC’s powerful director general, in charge of one of Canada’s largest health-care providers. He was appointed to the position in 2004, after leading the Detroit Medical Center through a tumultuous period marked by financial difficulties and mass layoffs.
Dr. Porter was a key member of the MUHC’s selection committee that awarded the $1.3-billion hospital construction and maintenance contract to an international consortium led by SNC-Lavalin.
The engineering giant has come under international scrutiny and sanction for other large projects it has landed overseas, in countries such as Libya and Bangladesh. Numerous criminal charges and accusations of fraud and corruption have been made against former SNC-Lavalin executives.
Accused in the still-unfolding MUHC scandal are SNC-Lavalin’s former president and CEO, Pierre Duhaime, and the company’s former executive vice-president in charge of construction, Riadh Ben Aissa, who has been languishing in a Swiss jail for the past year.
Mr. Ben Aissa worked closely with Dr. Porter on the MUHC hospital project once construction commenced in 2010.
Dr. Porter, who turns 57 in June, carved an extraordinary career for himself in Canada, the country where he trained as an oncologist and where he launched his career in hospital administration.
His self-described “boss” at the MUHC was David Angus, a Conservative member of Canada’s Senate. Now retired, Mr. Angus had been chief fundraiser for the Progressive Conservative party under former leader Brian Mulroney. He had also served as an Air Canada director before Dr. Porter took a seat there.
In addition to his MUHC duties, Dr. Porter was at the time of his alleged hospital fraud a member of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), a civilian body that oversees the activities of CSIS, Canada’s national spy agency.
For reasons that have never been explained, Prime Minister Harper elevated Dr. Porter to the position of SIRC chairman, in June 2010. The position gave Dr. Porter access to all of Canada’s state secrets, save for cabinet confidences.
He resigned from SIRC in November 2011, two days after the National Post exposed his secret dealings with a controversial Montreal lobbyist, Ari Ben-Menashe. Dr. Porter had attempted to solicit from Mr. Ben-Menashe a $120-million grant from the Russian Federation, ostensibly to be spent on public infrastructure projects in his native Sierra Leone.
Dr. Porter had also been acting as a special advisor to Sierra Leone’s president, and claimed to represent the country as an “ambassador plenipotentiary.” This was in clear conflict of interest with his duties as SIRC chair, security experts said.
Dr. Porter called the National Post story a “scurrilous portrayal,” adding that he was “a proud Canadian and a man for whom integrity, honour and respect hold tremendous meaning.” But he did not refute any of the facts revealed in the investigation.
He resigned from the MUHC a few weeks later, and left Montreal in early 2012, with more controversies at his heels. In a lawsuit filed in November 2012, McGill University claimed it had provided Dr. Porter with a low interest, $500,000 loan of which almost $300,000 was owed. The following month, a report commissioned by the Quebec government said that major financial irregularities had occurred at the MUHC during Dr. Porter’s tenure.
He seemed nowhere to be found. In fact, Dr. Porter had retreated to Nassau, Bahamas, where he has for years operated a private cancer treatment centre. Despite his notoriety in Canada, he was appointed by Bahamian president Perry Christie to head a national stem cell research commission.
When reporters finally met up with him in Nassau early this year, Dr. Porter claimed he had just self-diagnosed himself with cancer.
A month later, in February, he was formally accused by Quebec police and charged with fraud, defrauding the provincial government, accepting bribes and conspiracy. His former deputy at MUHC, Yanai Elbaz, faces the same set of charges. Mssrs. Duhaime and Ben Aissa were charged with offering bribes, fraud, and conspiracy. A fifth man, Bahamas resident Jeremy Morris, was also charged.
Affidavits and warrants allege that a $22-million kickback was paid to secure the MUHC hospital contract. All of the accused are presumed innocent unless proven guilty.
Dr. Porter had become a wanted man. But he didn’t return to Canada to answer the formal allegations made against him. Speaking to a local reporter in Nassau, he said his cancer had spread and declared himself unfit for travel. His accusers would have to make other arrangements if they wanted to speak to him.
“I don’t want them to think I would chicken out on anything,” Dr. Porter told The Associated Press during an interview. “So if they want to come here, absolutely no problem.”
Instead, they found him in Panama. Quebec’s anti-corruption task force did not explain what Dr. Porter and his wife were doing in that country on Monday.
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