Two Conservative cabinet ministers denied Wednesday that their government ever pushed to appoint a man now accused of corruption to the Port of Montreal — a man the prime minister's office once called Ottawa's "preference" for the post.
When asked why Stephen Harper's government wanted Robert Abdallah placed at the federal agency, Industry Minister Christian Paradis said: "Nobody pushed anything."
Maxime Bernier, minister of state for small business, agreed: "Our government didn't support a candidacy. It's the Port of Montreal that didn't appoint that person."
And Bernier went further: "I'm glad that man wasn't appointed to any position."
Abdallah, Montreal's former city manager, was accused at the Quebec corruption inquiry Tuesday of being part of an elaborate kickback scheme involving construction firms. He passionately denied the allegations, which haven't been proven in court, in a radio interview on Wednesday.
"I challenge anyone to come and testify that I met Robert Abdallah and I gave him money," Abdallah told Cogeco 98.5 radio, adding that he is working to clear his name.
By Wednesday evening, the prime minister's office moved to clarify what Bernier and Paradis had said. Spokesman Carl Vallee emphasized that Abdallah had been the city's favoured candidate for the port.
"To be clear, the (federal) government expressed a preference for the candidate of the City of Montreal," said Vallee. "The board made a decision. Mr Abdallah was not appointed."
Former Harper spokesman pressed candidacy
In 2006, the year that Abdallah left the city government, his name began circulating as possible president of the Montreal Port Authority.
The chairman of the port's board has said he and other directors met Dimitri Soudas, then a close aide to Harper, at a Montreal restaurant in the spring of 2007 and Soudas pressed Abdallah's candidacy.
Former public works minister Michael Fortier told The Globe and Mail that he had to step in to remind the board of directors of their independence when he heard about the pressure being exerted.
One of Fortier's staffers told the Globe that he subsequently received an aggressive call from Soudas telling him to back off.
Soudas did not hide the fact that the federal Conservatives wanted Abdallah. He told a parliamentary committee in 2008 that "three levels of government" had indicated a preference for the Port job.
"The government had expressed some support for Mr. Abdallah, but ultimately the board of directors made a different decision," Soudas told The Canadian Press in 2009.
"The government of Canada indicated a preference," he added.
And again, during last year's federal election, Soudas 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."
Soudas did not respond to requests for comment this week.
'Many people' wanted him in Port job: Abdallah
In the radio interview on Wednesday, Abdallah was asked whether he was the choice of controversial construction boss Tony Accurso for the Port job. Abdallah went to work for Accurso a few years after leaving the city.
"Listen, I don't know," Abdallah said of the Port position. "I was the candidate for many people. Many people wanted to see me there."
Last spring, a mysterious recording surfaced purporting to capture the voices of Accurso and businessman Bernard Poulin discussing how they could get the Conservatives to place their preferred candidate at the port. Soudas, who has said he knows nothing about the conversation, is mentioned as the man who can get the job done in Ottawa.
Abdallah said his candidacy at the port was a "long story" that he was willing to explore from "A to Z," but he did not go into any more detail in the radio interview.
Accurso and Poulin have never directly addressed questions about the recordings, other than to highlight Quebec's laws governing the interception and broadcast of private conversations.
Accurso is currently facing fraud, conspiracy, and influence peddling charges.