Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is defending his campaign spokesman from allegations of political interference in a senior appointment at the Montreal Port Authority.
Dimitri Soudas, the Conservative Party's spokesman, is accused of putting pressure on the board of directors of the Montreal Port Authority to appoint a favoured individual as its chief executive officer.
Responding to the allegations raised in a joint investigation by Radio-Canada and the Globe and Mail, Harper said in Rivière-du-Loup, Que., on Wednesday that Soudas's actions were normal.
"The board of directors in this corporation, in many corporations, appoints its CEO and it's not unusual for the government to express its preference," Harper said.
"The government did. The board took another decision. We respect that decision and we work with the board and its president," he said.
Soudas told reporters on Wednesday that his involvement was "quite normal" and that he simply passed on the Harper government's preference to the port.
"The government expressed its preference and ultimately the decision was on the board of directors," Soudas said.
Soudas was asked several times to detail how many times he met with officials from the port but he did not give a specific answer.
"I don't have a count of how many times, whether it's once or twice the government on the public record had expressed a preference," he said.
The Radio-Canada-Globe and Mail report said Harper government had supported the candidacy of Robert Abdallah, a Montreal engineer, in 2007.
The report also said Michael Fortier, who was a Conservative senator and the minister of public works at the time, contacted the Port of Montreal and told them to disregard any pressure being applied in the hiring process by Soudas.
Fortier told Radio-Canada that when his office learned of the meeting between Soudas and the Port of Montreal, he called members and told them to vote freely.
Soudas appeared in front of a parliamentary committee in 2008 and denied having met with board members on the subject of the appointment.
When asked about the allegations, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said on Wednesday he wants answers from Harper on what precisely happened between Soudas and the Port of Montreal.
"Obviously, very concretely he said under oath [in 2008] he never met those people on this issue," Duceppe said.
"And yesterday, he said, well, if I do remember, well, I just expressed a preference. He talked about that issue when he said under oath he didn't."
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said he wants Soudas to clearly explain his role in the appointment process at the port.
"I believe Mr. Soudas needs to clarify this situation … Mr. Soudas has the duty and the obligation to tell the truth before citizens as soon as possible," Ignatieff said in French.
"That means right now. We are in an election. It's a question that is part of this election campaign, and this needs to be settled not after an inquiry that will take months and months."
The Liberal leader said there is a possibility that Soudas lied under oath in front of a House of Commons committee.
Board named successor
At the end of 2006, after sitting as the president of the Port of Montreal for 23 years, Dominic Taddeo announced his intention to retire.
The port's board of directors then started the process to pick a successor. Under the Canada Marine Act, the seven-person board must act in the best interest of the Port of Montreal and in doing so, they are completely independent of the agencies that named them to the board.
The board is made up of four people named by users of the port; three others are named respectively by the federal, provincial and municipal governments.
In the spring of 2007, the three members put in charge of the review committee were called to the Muscadin restaurant by Soudas, who was, at the time Harper's press secretary, according to Radio-Canada's report.
According to Radio-Canada sources, Soudas told the board members that Abdallah, a former executive at the City of Montreal, was the federal government's choice to become the port's next president.
"It was certainly interference because they met us specifically to discuss the nomination of a new chair," Marc Bruneau, one of those board members, told Radio-Canada.