Dr. Arthur Porter says $22.5 million in payments from SNC-Lavalin was his reward for years of international consulting work — not kickbacks for awarding the SNC-led consortium the $1.3 billion contract to build the McGill University super-hospital.

In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with CBC News from inside La Joya prison in Panama, Porter dismissed suggestions of wrongdoing or of conflict of interest for quietly negotiating a $30-million contract in December 2009 for "consulting work" for SNC-Lavalin at the same time he was CEO of the McGill University Hospital Centre helping to judge the company’s bid to build the mega-hospital.

The $30-million contract, from which police say $22.5 million was delivered, "was for consulting and different businesses we were going to do internationally and elsewhere," Porter insisted in an often contradictory interview. “But it was not anything to do with the hospital.”

Porter has been in La Joya prison since his arrest in May 2013 at the Panama airport on an international warrant. He is one of nine people charged in an alleged kickback scheme. Quebec provincial police accuse him of splitting $22.5 million in kickback fees with his McGill colleague Yanai Elbaz.

Arthur Porter

Dr. Arthur Porter, the former McGill hospital CEO accused of fraud, has said he got $22.5 million from SNC-Lavalin for consulting work. (John Nicol / CBC)

When CBC News showed Porter a police diagram of an alleged money trail, and asked him to explain why money was transferred from his own shell company to Elbaz’s, Porter said: "I won’t answer that question because there is an ongoing investigation."

In a new autobiography that he released earlier this month, Porter says he began discussions about future work with SNC-Lavalin as far back as 2005, which would be shortly after he was appointed CEO of the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.

For its part, SNC-Lavalin said in an email to CBC News on Tuesday: "As of today, we do not have any information that supports the claims Mr. Porter has made regarding SNC-Lavalin and a contract in 2005. 

"If there was a contract, we would be interested to see it and begin an internal investigation on the subject."

Defies deadly cancer

Porter, a Cambridge-trained oncologist, left Canada in late 2012 to return to his family home in the Bahamas after a series of news stories about questionable business deals involving him in Africa.  

He resigned from the MUHC and as chair of Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee, the body overseeing CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to which he was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.

Shortly after, he announced he conducted tests and discovered cancer — a “poorly differentiated adenocarcinoma” giving him just months to live.

"I really didn’t even think it was going to be nine months," Porter recalled last week, now a full 21 months later. "It was in the lung, it was in the lymph nodes, it was in the bone and it was in the liver."

Panama La Joya prison

Panama's La Joya prison, where Porter has been held since May 2013. (CBC News)

But he credits a new drug called crizotinib, which he gets smuggled into prison, for saving his life and halting the spread of the disease. He is angry at the speculation and questions of whether or not he has cancer.

"If you asked all the physicians, the ones who actually put a scope into my chest, the ones who scooped out the tumour cells, the ones who looked at the X-rays, I am sure that they would be most surprised and quite disappointed. What I do know is I do have this cancer, it has been treated, I have responded well."

Millions in SNC 'consulting fees'

What is not clear is what work Porter actually did for SNC-Lavalin. In his more than hour-long prison interview with CBC News, Porter at first said he had a "loose agreement" with the Montreal-based engineering giant dating back to 2005 to do consulting work, but that he was never paid by the company.

"We were not actually conducting business," said Porter. "We never actually started anything. We passed some letters."

Pressed for specifics, Porter said he discussed oil, mining and infrastructure projects across Asia, the Middle East and Africa with, among others, former SNC-Lavalin CEO Jacques Lamarre with whom he says he discussed a deal involving a possible oil refinery project in Sierra Leone, Porter's home country.

But Porter then changed his story and said compensation was to be paid once the hospital contract was settled.

CBC News confronted him with police evidence showing that months before any final decisions on the Montreal hospital contract Porter set up a shell company, Sierra Asset Management, and inked the $30-million contract with SNC-Lavalin in 2009 purportedly for work related to a gas plant in Algeria .

"I’d said to SNC, I said to the players that be, that if I was going to do any consulting, I would do it for five-year contracts for around five million or so a year. And I would work to find businesses for them.

"Remember, every business that I could produce would probably be billion dollar businesses. And I was surprised that they actually were interested in this."

But Porter refused to identify whom he was negotiating with at the company, repeatedly insisting the money was for international projects unrelated to the hospital.

SNC-Lavalin has denied having any relationship with Porter as far back as 2005.

Former CEO Jacques Lamarre told CBC News this week that "I never discussed projects with him. That’s something I am sad for him for that. He’s someone who is trying everything to save his reputation, to save what he has, and I don’t want to jump on it."

Lamarre says he may have met Porter a few times at public functions.

"Maybe when I was shaking hands with him I was saying 'I am CEO of SNC-Lavalin.' Maybe …I told him already that I was interested to build the CUSM [McGill University] hospital. That’s possible. But discussing an oil refinery in Sierra Leone — it’s impossible.”

CBC News also asked Porter why, in his recently released book, The Man Behind the Bow Tie, he broke down and apologized to one of his four daughters when he was arrested.

"I’d put the family through so much,” he said, speaking from the library of the notorious prison hidden in a valley east of Panama City. “I was sorry I had developed cancer. I was sorry that I was making them media targets.

"I wasn’t sorry that I had been a businessman. I wasn’t sorry I had been doing international contracts, I wasn’t sorry that I was trying to get the Russians to build infrastructure projects in Sierra Leone. I wasn’t sorry I had served for SIRC and tried to make a difference. And I wasn’t sorry that a wonderful hospital was going up in Montreal.”

For tips on this or other stories, contact John Nicol or Dave Seglins