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Arthur Porter

Multinational Man of Mystery

Correction appended February 1, 2013

Correction appended February 10, 2013

The most technically accurate and also the least relevant thing you can say about Arthur Porter is that he’s a physician, a radiation oncologist who specializes in prostate cancer. This tells you as much about the true nature of his trade as saying T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk.

From 2004 to 2011 Porter was the CEO of the McGill University Health Center (MUHC), but from that gig flowed many tributaries. He was also a member of the Air Canada board, one-time head of the civilian board that oversees Canada’s spies (expect the word “board” to come up a lot when Porter is in the conversation), ambassador plenipotentiary for the government of his native Sierra Leone, and advisor to that nation’s president. He attended garden parties with Stephen Harper. Like a boss.

In photo ops from his days at the MUHC, he was sometimes trailed by a wake of lab-coated doctors, or seen at the construction site in a hard hat. He always wore a bowtie. His smile was cherubic. These were his cloak and his dagger.

What we now know about Porter’s tenure as the CEO of the McGill hospital complex is that it was a nightmare. MUHC has a projected $115-million deficit. It paid out 900,000 hours of dubious overtime since 2009. Its management was so hilariously bad that the province has put it one step shy of receivership. It isn’t yet clear how much of this was directly Porter’s fault, but he was in charge of the place at the time, so the likelihood of the amount being zero is low.

The incompetence at MUHC during the Porter era was peppered with some alleged criminality. Two former top executives at SNC-Lavalin – the engineering and construction group that is currently building the MUHC super hospital in N.D.G. – were charged with fraud in November. The execs allegedly authorized $22.5 million in “irregular” payments related to getting the contract for a $1.3-billion hospital. Fittingly, one of these executives was already locked up in a Swiss jail for another corruption charge and couldn’t be arrested.

The fraud charge was the worst of it, until the Globe and Mail reported that the company to which SNC paid those $22.5 million was called Sierra Asset Management Inc., a company that seems not to have existed and whose address was the same as a colonnaded Swiss bank in the Bahamas painted a lemon meringue colour and flanked by palm trees. The bank was run by a guy called Hermann-Josef Hermanns. And, oh yeah, the Hermanns guy was a business associate of Porter’s.

This is the kind of slapstick-level eighty-car pileup of fraudulence that makes it so tempting to laugh at Arthur Porter. There’s always another out-of-control Buick veering its way toward the scene of the crash.

For example, a guy named Ari Ben-Menashe had his Montreal home burnt down about a month ago. In this city of firebombs, that is significant.

This is the same Ari Ben-Menashe who cut a deal with Porter in 2010 to procure $120 million from the Russian government for development work in Sierra Leone. The National Post’s revelation of the deal triggered Porter’s resignation from the MUHC and the Canadian civilian spy board mentioned above – because Ben-Menashe used to be an arms dealer and an Israeli spy! I mean, Jesus.

* * *

Porter’s life is like something out of a Bond movie. His family owns a diamond mine in Sierra Leone, where he seems to have holed up when McGill came looking for the over $300,000 he owed them. In 2008, the University gave Porter a $500,000 loan at 1 per cent interest to help him buy a penthouse condo on Doctor Penfield. Now McGill is suing him for the money he didn’t pay back. To top it off, the National Bank might seize the condo which the loan helped him buy because – wait for it – Porter sold the condo without paying back $800,000 worth of his mortgage. The guy has a lot of pots on the stove, scandal-wise.

Consider his departure from Detroit, where he was also in charge of a series of hospitals until 2004.

According to a great investigation by the Globe and Mail – to whose reporting, along with that of the Montreal Gazette, I’m deeply indebted – he was considered pretty good at this job for a while in part because he could relate to Detroit’s black community. Arthur Porter relating to any community whose members don’t winter in Aspen is just a fantastical notion. He used to keep photos of himself with George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney in his office and calls himself a Republican. He talks like Salman Rushdie, and his accent is Oxbridge mahogany (he attended Cambridge med school) with a slightly Sierra Leonine timbre. He says ‘one’ instead of ‘you,’ as in ‘when one is on a private sector board, the goals are much clearer.’ And then there’s his penchant for saying things like, “I look black but I speak white,” which people in Detroit and Montreal remember as something of a Porter catchphrase, according to the Globe.

When he couldn’t get the Detroit Medical Center’s finances under control – even after reducing its staff from 20,000 to 13,000 – he convinced the state of Michigan to pump $50 million into the hospitals. Then, as board members started resigning because his myriad of business interests was making him unreliable, Porter skipped town and took the MUHC job. Left those suckers holding the bag, hard. Porter was pursued up the St. Lawrence by at least two lawsuits for not paying back loans or making good on debts. Neither held up. Charges don’t stick to dude, he’s Teflon.

The committee that picked Porter didn’t necessarily know about the lawsuits, but they seemed to like his freewheeling, cowboy reputation. According to the Globe, “They were in a desperate hunt for a decisive leader with teeth – someone who could cut through the morass of the Quebec bureaucracy and finally build Montreal’s new superhospital, which had been nothing more than a discussion for six years. And here was Dr. Porter, a man with a vocal distaste for red tape and the ideological bona fides to prove it.”

Well, they got what they wished for. Porter didn’t cut through Quebec’s red tape so much as try to wish it away. And this is where you start realizing that there’s something weirdly modern about this otherwise totally vintage charlatan.

There are clues in a 2010 YouTube clip, when McGill management professor Karl Moore sat Porter down for an interview. AP is wearing a pinstripe suit for the occasion, and his black bowtie has red polkadots – it’s like he’s wearing a Halloween costume of a Prohibition-era mobster. But when he starts talking, he sounds more like a seminarian at Davos (the annual meeting in Switzerland where the rich get together and convince themselves anew that capitalism is great).

“I think actually, in many ways, some of the public sector boards can still learn from the private sector,” Porter says. “Some of the inefficiencies, or perhaps diffuseness, you see in public sector boards is because there isn’t a single focus.”

That exaltation of the private sector, that thirst for efficiency, isn’t exactly typical of James Bond’s antagonist. In the Moore interview, Porter’s spy movie aesthetics are hitched to a nerdy technocratic blandness.

That might be the secret of Arthur Porter, his secret mundanity. In important ways, he played by the rules: he fired workers to cut costs, he dodged bureaucracy, he networked. Most importantly, he passed the buck.

Consider what was happening with mortgages before the 2008 financial crisis: loans being given to people who patently couldn’t afford them; the selling of that debt to banks; the bundling of that unlikely-to-be-repaid debt with less terrible debt by the banks; and the reselling of the bundle to other banks. Lenders pulled the pin out of a grenade, then passed the grenade down the line to Wall Street bankers, who painted it gold and passed it on to another bank, figuring the next guy in line would mistake it for a Fabergé egg, or at least be busy inspecting it when the thing blew up.

In spirit, how was this different from l’Affaire Porter? Large corporations were left in ruin by reckless mismanagement, with the mismanagers remaining well-ensconced in Aspen and Davos and Cabo? This is a world that rewards madcap risk-takers, empowers them, gives them public money to gamble with and pocket. Seen against that backdrop, Porter seems kind of normal.

This was not some garden variety Quebec corruption story. It was too complicated, too 2.0. As my Quebecois uncle Jean-Paul once said to me, “The Mafia are good managers.” Consider that Laval, one of the province’s most luridly corrupt jurisdictions, had the province’s highest Standard & Poor’s credit rating in 2012 – a gentleman’s “AA- with a positive outlook.” There’s something dowdily bureaucratic about the Mafia – if they use violence to enforce their rules, at least they have rules. Compared to them, Arthur Porter is a credit default swap vanishing into air.

* * *

Except Arthur Porter didn’t vanish. There’s a famous Marxist geographer named David Harvey – he teaches at the City University of New York – who says, “Capitalism doesn’t solve its problems, it just moves them around geographically.” I don’t know if that’s true – but if it is, Arthur Porter is a case in point.

After resigning from the MUHC in late 2011, Porter took up residence in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. He runs a private cancer clinic there, and lives in a gated community away from the mess and scrutiny of public hospitals and public life, a late capitalist dream.

In April, he hopped a couple of islands south to Antigua, for the groundbreaking of a new cancer clinic. Porter was chairman of the clinic’s board.

In a YouTube video of the event that seems to have been taken down, Porter is wearing a cream suit, a white shirt, and a black bowtie. He is standing in the shade of a canopy on what seems to be a searingly sunny day in St. John’s, the capital. He’s in top form, making little jokes – “I, proud holder of an Antiguan-Barbadan medical license,” he says with a coy smile, as if to say, ‘what country’s medical license don’t I have?’ – speaking expansively and sentimentally when the moment calls for it.

“You know, there are not many things that move me,” he says at one point, “but this is one of the things that really does.”

He makes promises about the hospital and flatters the small island nation’s sense of importance. He says the clinic will be of the same quality you get “in South Florida, or Minnesota.”

“What goes inside,” he says, “has to be of superb, international quality.”

“International” – a word that, when Porter says it, evokes drawers full of passports, Swiss banks on little islands, the ethereal, ocean-jumping mystery of money.

Also, evaded culpability. The Cancer Center of the Eastern Caribbean, as it is called, was supposed to be completed by the end of 2012. As of January 10, construction hadn’t begun. On that day, the Antigua Observer newspaper wrote that it had received a letter from Porter saying construction would begin soon – only he couldn’t say exactly when. Back in October, a board member named Cotrille George said the hospital was being assembled overseas, and would be put together in no time once the parts reached Antigua.

The Observer’s coverage of the whole thing has this wounded tone – a sort of ‘But you promised!’ incredulity.

Don’t worry, Antigua. We’ve been there. It sucks for a while, but then you learn lessons about the nature of global capital.

 * * *

On January 9, 2013, probably around the time he was sending his epistle to Antigua, Porter announced that he has cancer. It is inoperable lung cancer. He will have to undergo chemotherapy in the Bahamas.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I was moved when I learned this. Especially after watching video footage of him since the diagnosis. His charm has been pernicious, it has been his weapon, but it humanizes him when you see it in action. On January 14, CBC broadcast an interview with Porter from his clinic in Nassau. As Porter shakes hands with the CBC reporter, Terrence McKenna, you see McKenna kind of throw his head back, laughing at some witticism, a little disarmed.

Porter is defiant. He denies having taken a cut from those unaccountable $22.5 million SNC-Lavalin funneled through the shell company that shares an address with his associate’s lemon meringue Bahamian bank. He denies knowing anything about the payment.

He stands by his characterization of the press investigation as a “witch hunt”: “It just seemed as if I was responsible for the snowfall in Montreal,” he says, very dryly, with a dim twinkle in his eye.

As for the cancer, he’s warlike in outlook, rightly. “Prepared like any other battle that you fight – go into it with the idea to win. That’s the way I always go.” Quite beautiful, the way he puts it. Like a pro athlete’s postgame press conference written in the style of the King James Bible.

But Porter looks reduced, there is no question. He is not wearing a coat or bowtie, literally the first time that this has been the case in maybe two dozen photos and videos I have seen of him. Instead, he’s dressed in a blue pinstripe shirt, unbuttoned several holes, on account of the heat I guess. His voice is thinner and higher than usual. He occasionally holds his head in his right hand, in world-weary fashion. He looks thinner in the face, though there’s still that lordly paunch beneath the shirt.

Finally, what the CBC says about his cancer is the most telling: that it is “self-diagnosed.” This is so Porter. Lungs, where the cancer is, are not in the man’s wheelhouse: he’s a prostate guy. But he winged it, and he prevailed. There’s the big, weighty question handled not with the slow-moving caution of bureaucrats and experts, but with the freestyle abandon of his own resourceful mind. It’s Gordon Gekko as oncologist.

The whole Porter story reminds me of the opening paragraph of Saul Bellow’s best novel, The Adventures of Augie March. The paragraph goes like this:

“I am an American, Chicago-born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

Could have been written by Porter himself, minus the Chicago part. And also minus the skepticism about fate-dodging. Because Porter and his ilk – the disdainers of bureaucracy, the hosanna-singers to efficiency, those who have made our world all the more precarious — will always try to toy with the acoustics, so we can’t hear what they’re doing. They will always glove the knuckle, so as not to leave prints. And often we will let them get away with it, and we will praise them for the quality of the kid.