Arthur Porter's death in Panama leaves lingering questions about McGill, extradition

Dr. Arthur Porter's death in a Panama City hospital late Tuesday leaves many questions unanswered, including why the Conservative supporter and spy-review committee chairman was never brought back to Canada.

McGill University Health Centre ex-CEO hinted at others involved in alleged $22.5M kickback scheme

Arthur Porter, 59, was arrested on May 27, 2013, in Panama and remained there until his death from lung cancer on June 30. (Jeff Todd/Associated Press/Canadian Press)

The death of Dr. Arthur Porter, McGill University Health Centre's former chief executive, in a Panama City hospital Tuesday night leaves many questions unanswered.

CBC News, because of communications with Porter and his family and visits to him in the Bahamas and Panama, has some insights into those questions, but ultimately, they just deepen the mysteries surrounding the late oncologist and hospital administrator.

Was the doctor guilty of participating in what Quebec police believe was a $22.5-million kickback scheme in the construction of a $1.4 billion mega-hospital in Montreal?

Porter, 59, was arrested for his involvement in that scheme on May 27, 2013, in Panama and remained there until his death from lung cancer in the country's national cancer centre.

Dr. Arthur Porter (L) talks with CBC reporter Dave Seglins at Panama's La Joya prison in Sept. 2014. Porter's lawyer, Ricardo Bilonick Paredes, is in the background. (John Nicol/CBC)

Why didn't he return to Canada to fight charges of fraud? Had he returned to Montreal, he could have been released on bail while awaiting trial and had better medical care available to him. 

Instead, he lingered for two years in arguably one of the world's worst jails, stuck in a small unsanitary cell with several other inmates, treating himself with the latest chemotherapy drugs his daughters could bring to him.

Why did the highly intelligent Porter languish for two years in Panama without getting any court dates to challenge his extradition to Canada?

Panama ignored its own extradition laws, and Canada did not press to have his case handled quickly.

At the very least, that seems curious, given that Porter was still a privy councillor. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had appointed him to the Security Intelligence Review Committee in 2008.

And what secrets did he take to his grave? He became chairman of SIRC before resigning in late 2011, so he was in a position to be aware of Canada's spy secrets. He was also an active supporter of the Conservative Party and hinted to CBC News that he had much to tell that would make people in Ottawa uncomfortable. 

Stories left to tell

So let's deal with those questions.

When CBC News interviewed him last September at La Joya prison, the Cambridge University graduate was coy, whether speaking on or off the record. He had promised big scoops, and shed some insights, but ultimately kept his cards close to his chest, as if he still had some games to play.

Arthur Porter was held at La Joya Prison near Panama City, Panama. (John Nicol/CBC)

On the record, he answered questions about the alleged kickbacks by saying he had a contract with SNC-Lavalin "for consulting and developing businesses in Africa" to explain the $11.25 million that went to Porter family accounts.

He wouldn't, however, explain why authorities allege the other $11.25 million went to accounts controlled by fellow MUHC executive Yanai Elbaz. Those charges have not yet been tested in court.

"I won't answer that question, because there is an ongoing investigation," he said. "You've just showed me something that you are saying this is what the police say. I won't actually answer."

Off the record, he said some major players in the deal were not among the seven others who had been charged in the scheme, intimating that the Sûreté du Québec still had much work to do.

As for not coming back to Canada to face charges, he said he feared "being hung out to dry as a scapegoat for this — whether there are things that involve national security that would become an issue, whether I would be treated fairly, whether I would get a fair trial."

When asked again in casual conversation, there seemed to be fear in his eyes, as if he were afraid of physical harm more than a prison sentence.

Left in limbo

In a long interview with the CBC's Dave Seglins, Porter said that being left in limbo, unable to get to court to fight the extradition request, was "interesting."

He added:

"If I was a conspiracy theorist, which of course I'm not, I would imagine there was a hand behind this — and it might be a Canadian hand."

Arthur Porter, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former senator David Angus, who recommended Porter for the SIRC appointment. (The Man Behind the Bow Tie: Arthur Porter on Business, Politics and Intrigue)

His Panamanian lawyer, Ricardo Bilonick Paredes, was more blunt. Canada was "allowed to do in Panama with the constitution and laws of Panama, [that] which they could not do in Canada," he told CBC News.

"If you deny him [his day in court, knowing he has cancer], you might think he would die in the process."

As for bringing the extradition process to a resolution, Paredes said, "they have not shown any interest."

Sources in Canada have told CBC News as much — that the federal government had little interest in bringing Porter back. 

So will we ever learn Arthur Porter's secrets? His wife Pamela and four daughters are just as interested in finding out how Porter got involved in this alleged scheme, and they have willingly co-operated with a CBC News investigation into who really participated in the MUHC scandal.

Those interested in the mysteries can only hope the resourceful Porter has left behind some digital message that will allow him to speak the truth from his grave.

Anyone with tips on this or other stories can contact John Nicol


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