Dr. Arthur Porter, the former head of the McGill University Health Centre who stands accused of taking bribes from builders, has taken refuge in the Bahamas. He has told reporters he is struggling with cancer in his lungs and his liver. Bringing him back to Montreal to explain where the money came from and where it went may prove difficult. The reputations of English Montreal's most distinguished business and professional people may be best protected if he never returns and never spills the beans.
The MUHC is a vast construction project in an abandoned railyard in Montreal's west end, intended to consolidate four small old hospitals into one big modern one. A corresponding French mega-hospital under the auspices of the University of Montreal is also in preparation.
Dr. Porter announced his departure from the positions of director general and chief executive officer of MUHC in December 2011. By then, MUHC with its board made up of English Montreal's Top People, had awarded $1.3 billion-worth of construction contracts to a consortium led by SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering and construction firm that takes on large projects across Canada and around the world. Former executives of the firm currently await trial on charges of paying bribes to public officials in Bangladesh, Libya and Algeria. Following police raids on SNC-Lavalin offices, charges were also laid against Dr. Porter and a former MUHC executive.
The anti-corruption drive in Montreal has already driven Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt and Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay from their offices. They were brought down by testimony of civic officials, paving contractors and shady go-betweens who appeared before the anti-corruption inquiry established by the former Liberal government of Jean Charest just before he was voted out of office. It is not clear from testimony before the inquiry who was guilty of what, but it is pretty clear that public officials regularly awarded inflated construction contracts and split the excess with the contractors.
No other Canadian province has recently uncovered corruption on such a vast scale -- but no other province has gone looking. Each province has had its own scandals from time to time. In Manitoba, the provincial legislative building stands as a monument to political corruption on a grand scale.
In September 2010, Maclean's magazine surveyed political corruption across the country and concluded that Quebec was the most corrupt province. The House of Commons passed a motion condemning the magazine for insulting the Quebec nation. SNC-Lavalin and its partners had started construction work on the mega-hospital in April the same year. At that time there was no public sign that McGill University and the prominent corporate executives, doctors and lawyers directing the health centre project were supervising a scandal. Yet their CEO of that time is now accused, in an arrest warrant issued Feb. 27, of fraud, conspiracy to defraud, fraud against the government, breach of trust, taking secret commissions and money laundering.
The Quebec authorities found evidence of corrupt practice because they went looking for it. The logic of public-sector contracting and the logic of corruption are pretty much the same in all jurisdictions. Manitobans must rely on vigilant police officers, opposition politicians, impudent journalists and disappointed bidders to nose out the indications that a contract has been won for unworthy reasons or that a public official is displaying more wealth than can be easily explained.
When the great and the good of a community have put their efforts together to build a hospital in order to heal the sick and to advance science, it seems rude to ask how much money is being passed under the table. For a long time, no one did ask that about the Montreal hospital project. The arrest warrants in Montreal point out that the question is always worth asking.