Ex-Montreal civil servant unaware why PMO wanted him for top job at city's port

MONTREAL – A man who was once the preferred candidate of the Prime Minister’s Office for the top job at the Port of Montreal says he never found out why he was the favoured one.

Robert Abdallah was Montreal city manager in late 2006 when one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s closest aides, Dimitri Soudas, began telling port board members the bureaucrat was the government’s preference for president.

Abdallah said he applied for the job in 2007.

“I never talked to anybody, I never asked anybody, I met the board, they chose somebody else — for me that’s the end of the question,” he told reporters Thursday.

“If somebody made pressure, you have to ask the prime minister why.”

Abdallah was speaking at a news conference he called to refute allegations he was involved in corruption in Quebec’s construction industry.

Abdallah said he ran into Soudas at social activities — “once or twice since 2003-2004.”

“Absolutely I met him, but we never talked about the Port of Montreal,” he said. “I never asked Dimitri Soudas or Senator (Leo) Housakos anything about the Port of Montreal.”

And, he added, they never asked him about it.

Abdallah also said he had known Housakos for quite some time.

“I knew him when I came to city hall (in 2003), but he wasn’t a senator.”

Mysterious telephone recordings, which surfaced in the spring of 2011, purport to capture the voices of two construction bosses discussing how Soudas could help them get their man appointed to the port. Housakos, who would go on to become a senator, is mentioned as an intermediary.

Both Housakos and Soudas had worked in Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s administration.

Housakos said this week he never tried to influence any federal political decision.

The construction chiefs, Tony Accurso and Bernard Poulin, have never directly responded to questions about the tapes other than to point to Quebec laws prohibiting the interception and broadcast of private conversations.

Meantime, Accurso, who faces a string of criminal charges including fraud, bribery and breach of trust, announced this week he was leaving the business world. His name also surfaced recently in testimony at Quebec’s inquiry into corruption in the construction industry.

Abdallah left Montreal city hall in June 2006 and accepted a job in November 2008 to manage one of Accurso’s companies.

He admitted to knowing Accurso for more than 30 years but stressed that taking the job didn’t make him a bad apple.

“That does not make me someone who is untrustworthy or should put my integrity in doubt,” Abdallah added.

The main objective of Abdallah’s news conference was to counter allegations made by Lino Zambito at the construction inquiry that Abdallah was involved in a kickback scheme that would land him $300,000.

“The testimony, I can confirm, is false,” Abdallah said as he repeatedly defended his reputation.

Zambito, an ex-construction boss, told the Charbonneau Commission earlier this month that Abdallah instructed him, through a middleman, to use piping from a particular firm while working on a major sewer contract.

The piping was more expensive — but Zambito said he was assured by a city engineer he would be compensated and that $300,000 would go to Abdallah as part of the deal.

“Where is the $300,000? He (Zambito) said somebody told him that somebody told him that $300,000 goes to Robert Abdallah.

“I defy anyone who can come and prove and say that he gave me one penny.

”Nobody will cast aspersions on my integrity.”

Abdallah said he is willing to co-operate with authorities and appear at the construction inquiry if he is called as a witness.