News  CRTC accused of nepotism

Controversy arises over possible favoritism in the CRTC

Last Friday, Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore announced that Athanasios “Tom” Pentefountas would replace Michel Arpin as the new vice-chair of broadcasting on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

Pentefountas’s appointment has come under criticism, as he does not hold any of the qualifications listed in the job description for the position, including experience in the field of telecommunications. He is also friends with several high-ranking members in the Conservative party. The CRTC is an independent regulatory and supervisory body dealing with Canadian broadcasting and telecommunications systems.

The CRTC states on its website that it aims to serve the Canadian public to ensure access to “high-quality Canadian programming” and are mandated to “reflect Canadian creativity and talent, our bilingual nature, our multicultural diversity, and the special place of aboriginal peoples in our society.” The CRTC makes its policy decisions based on the 1991 Broadcasting Act and the 1993 Telecommunications Act, and is accountable to Parliament via the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

Pentefountas is a criminal lawyer and a partner in the Montreal law firm Silver Sandiford. Most of his work has been predominantly in the public sphere with his involvement in the Montreal Hellenic Chamber of Commerce and the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association.

Pentefountas was also the president of conservative provincial political party Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) between 2007 and 2008, and ran twice as a candidate. Pentefountas is acquainted with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, and Conservative senator Leo Housakos. A press release distributed by Moore’s office on Friday did not mention Pentefountas’ prior political activity or any experience in the broadcasting industry.

Groups such as Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a non-partisan national volunteer organization, criticized Pentefountas’ appointment. Jim Thompson, spokesperson for the group, said that “nobody would want to see a political agenda at work in deciding which companies [or] points of view get a broadcasting license and which don’t.”

Moore also announced on Friday that Pierre Gingras, ADQ member and former MNA from the Blainville, Quebec electoral district, was appointed to the board of CBC/Radio-Canada.

“This particular government has seen fit to exercise its legal right to give the CRTC direction, and, on occasion, to overturn its decisions, on a frequency that is extraordinary and I would say unprecedented,” said Thompson. “I would also point out that [CRTC Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein’s] appointment expires in less than a year, and it has been reported in other media publications that there is pressure on von Finckenstein to vacate his position early in order to permit someone that is more friendly to the government to be appointed to that position.”

In early August 2010, a panel of individuals from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the Privy Council Office (PCO) and Heritage Canada interviewed eight short-listed candidates for the Vice-Chair of Broadcasting position. Three of these candidates were current commissioners on the CRTC.

Pentefountas was not among these candidates. Jean-Luc Benoît, spokesperson for Moore, told the Globe and Mail that Pentefountas went through a selection process conducted by the PCO and Department of Canadian Heritage.
During Question Period in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Libby Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver East, said, “Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives raised hell about patronage every time a Liberal was appointed by [Liberal Prime Minister’s] Paul Martin or Jean Chrétien, but now that they are in power all the outrage is gone. Connected Conservatives are appointed left and right, mostly right, to the Senate, to the Immigration and Refugee Board, to the CRTC, and now to the CBC. … [Harper] was very clear when he said: This has got to stop, and when we become government, it will stop. … Why was Liberal patronage a bad thing but Conservative patronage a good thing?”

In the same sitting Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, accused the PMO of nepotism, asking, “How can [Harper] claim that Canadians whose only qualification is being a friend of the government are not in a conflict of interest situation?”

The office of James Moore has rebuffed accusations that the appointment was politically motivated. A staff member from Moore’s office told The Daily that he would not be available for comment.

Arpin’s five-year mandate as Vice-Chair of Broadcasting expired on August 31, 2010, and Moore informed Arpin, who has worked in the Canadian broadcasting industry for 47 years, that his mandate would not be renewed. In an interview with Le Devoir, Arpin said he was “disappointed” that the government did not consider the renewal of his mandate in spite of his interest in continuing the post. Since the end of Arpin’s mandate, he has agreed to join the Université de Montréal’s department of communication as a visiting professor.