On the chilly autumn evening of Sept. 27, 2010, a gaggle of current and former Conservatives gathered at Ottawa’s Hy’s Steakhouse, the clubby respite of choice for many politicians and their hangers-on. Chief among them: Jim Prentice, then the federal environment minister, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, former Conservative cabinet minister Monte Solberg and party strategist Geoff Norquay. The next day would be all business: Stelmach was set to share the stage with Quebec Premier Jean Charest at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce to deliver a steadfast defence of the Alberta oil sands development.
This night was social, and tongues loosened—a little too literally in one case, as far as some attendees were concerned. At one of the tables pulled together for the occasion sat Bruce Carson, long-time Parliament Hill fixture and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s one-time “indispensable right-hand man,” as Conservative insider Tom Flanagan recently described him. The 65-year-old was there with Michele McPherson, a 22-year-old former escort whom he had introduced as his girlfriend. It was jarring enough for several guests present that McPherson wasn’t dressed for the occasion—”the skirt a little too short and a little too tight,” said one person in attendance—or that Carson was dating a woman roughly the same age as Carson’s own daughter; worse still, the pair couldn’t keep their hands off each other throughout the meal. “People were taken aback” at the display, says the attendee.
Carson’s involvement with McPherson—as we know now—went beyond late-night snogfests in front of well-connected Conservatives. Throughout the last two weeks, APTN News has methodically uncovered the business relationship between the pair, and how Carson allegedly used his prime contacts within the government to try to lure government contracts to H20 Global Group, the Ottawa firm where both McPherson and her mother worked.
As APTN reported, Carson secured meetings between H20 Global and ministerial staff at Indian Affairs for water filtration contracts reported to be worth millions of dollars; Carson was also working on a deal with Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, and as recently as last month met with Environment Minister Peter Kent to flog H20’s wares. According to APTN, McPherson stood to gain a 20 per cent fee on any government contract the company secured with native bands across the country.
Carson wasn’t a registered lobbyist, so he technically hasn’t done anything wrong. Nevertheless, Harper has since referred the whole affair to the RCMP. That certainly hasn’t allayed opposition attacks against the Conservative government. Though there has been no shortage of political scandals staining the Conservative brand as of late, the Carson affair is perhaps the most damaging for a government that sells itself as morally upright and by the book: an old Conservative operative who allegedly used his contacts to benefit the young former sex worker he wanted to marry. “This is the biggest black eye the Conservatives have suffered to date,” said NDP MP Pat Martin. “The other scandals may be bigger in scale and in scope but nothing resonates like this. Everybody can relate to how this is so fundamentally wrong on so many levels. The other stuff is inside baseball.”
Not surprisingly, few Conservatives were willing to speak on the record about Carson. But many wonder how the disbarred lawyer who’d served jail time in the ’80s was able to rise to the Prime Minister’s Office and have the ear of the country’s most powerful man. It’s a complicated question, yet the picture emerging of Carson is one of stark contrasts, a one-time Conservative mastermind and a forever smiling man who was as diligent and in control in the latter days of his professional life as he was scattershot in his private life. Only when he met McPherson last spring did these two worlds collide.
Oddly enough, Bruce Carson’s political career in Ottawa really took off in earnest on the heels of a disastrous mid-term setback in his legal career. In 1981, the Law Society of Upper Canada moved to disbar the then-35-year-old after he misappropriated $23,900 from three clients and forged the signature of two. Even then, Carson had friends in high places: the mayor of Ottawa at the time, Marion Dewar, along with the city’s Catholic archbishop and a host of prominent business and legal leaders, all wrote letters attesting to Carson’s character. Nevertheless, Carson was disbarred and served jail time as a result of the fraud.
Following his release in 1983, Carson took up a position at the Library of Parliament, where, as the Toronto Star recently reported, he wrote a synopsis of prime minister Brian Mulroney’s lobbyist legislation. He didn’t have much influence within Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative Party—”Never met him, don’t know anything about him,” former cabinet minister Don Mazankowski told Maclean’s.
Yet Carson moved up the Tory ranks, first as a contract worker for a number of senators and, soon enough, as a policy adviser for Senate Opposition leader John Lynch-Staunton. (“I’m not talking about Bruce Carson,” Lynch-Staunton told Maclean’s, before hanging up.) Carson also worked for former Ontario premier Mike Harris’s office in the 1990s; coupled with his work with the federal Tories, he made enough of an impression as a policy wonk to catch the eye of Philip Murphy, Harper’s chief of staff, in 2003. Murphy tapped Carson to advise Harper following the merger of the PC and Reform parties, which had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many old-school PC types. Carson was charged with smoothing out relations between the old guard and the Reformers. “He came highly recommended by people in the PC party at the time,” Murphy said.
Others concur. “Bruce quickly proved himself to be very capable, and Harper started to rely on him more and more,” Flanagan told Maclean’s. “There’s not really anything odd about it. Bruce had been around politics for a long time, working for both the federal and Ontario PCs.” Also key to Carson’s success in the PMO was his soft touch, some say. “In his professional life he’s always been part of the solution, and one of the grown-ups in the room,” says writer and former Mulroney speechwriter L. Ian MacDonald. “In a PMO that had too many zealots, he was one of the cooler heads.” “He’s a very smart guy, he has a good EQ and he never had to have the biggest dick in the room,” says one of Carson’s long-time friends.
In 2006, ensconced in Harper’s newly minted Prime Minister’s Office, his star really began to shine. In the fall of that year he was the subject of an Ottawa Citizen column titled “Meet the PMO’s chief trouble shooter,” in which columnist Deirdre McMurdy wrote that Carson was “the ultimate troubleshooter in Tory circles, the PMO’s Mr. Fixit and one of the principal authors and packagers of a wide range of Tory policies.” He was subsequently brought in to help save the party’s climate-change policy, which then-environment minister Rona Ambrose had badly botched, and to craft a new strategy for John Baird, her replacement.
Still, Carson’s reputation wasn’t without its hiccups. Back in the spring of 2005, while he was still a key figure in Harper’s opposition team, the lifelong Tory wanted to jump to the Liberal government. A Liberal insider recalls running into him outside of Hy’s. “He was almost incoherent,” the insider told Maclean’s. “He inquired whether or not there might be an opportunity with the Liberal party. I don’t know if it was the booze talking or if he actually meant it. He spoke very disparagingly about Mr. Harper. He didn’t have anything nice to say about him.”
And Carson’s personal life was another matter altogether. “He’s fundamentally undisciplined,” says the long-time friend of Carson. “His life is just a constant mess all the time. He wasn’t reliable. He drank like crazy. And he always had a thing for the ladies.”
According to the friend, Carson’s influence in the PMO began to wane with the arrival of Guy Giorno, Harper’s new chief of staff, in the summer of 2008. “When Giorno came in, Carson wasn’t long for this world. They had a history from Queen’s Park, and Giorno didn’t like him. He turned Carson’s office into a meeting room and started restricting his access to the Prime Minister. Carson got the hint and left.” (Giorno didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Carson then became the executive director at the Canada School of Energy and Environment, a Calgary-based think tank that received some $15 million in funding from Industry Canada in 2008. But according to Carson’s friend, Carson continued to advise Harper, first following the prorogation of Parliament in late 2008 and the subsequent federal budget. “He was very close to the Prime Minister,” says the friend. Indeed, as APTN reported, Carson knew the name of the new Indian and northern affairs minister, John Duncan, in the days before the appointment was announced in August 2010.
Citing the RCMP investigation, Carson recently took a leave of absence from the CSEE. According to APTN, he has bought a house with McPherson in the Ottawa suburb of Kemptville. She is no longer his girlfriend. She is his fiancée. Carson declined Maclean’s invitations to clear the air. The Conservatives, who rode to power on the strength of their moral certitude, are now scrambling to fix what their former Mr. Fixit has broken.