Harper defends aide, senator following mysterious recordings

OTTAWA -The name of controversial Quebec construction boss Tony Accurso has cost the careers of figures connected to Montreal City Hall, and has suddenly landed like a ball of kryptonite on the federal campaign trail.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper fended off calls by opposition leaders Thursday to fire a senior aide after mysterious recordings surfaced that purported a link to Accurso.

The calls, posted anonymously on YouTube and quoted by Bloc Quebecois Gilles Duceppe, seem to suggest an attempt was made by Accurso and fellow construction executive Bernard Poulin to influence a federal appointment. The postings of the unverified recordings include written notes alleging who the speakers are, and the people they are talking about.

Harper's director of communications Dimitri Soudas and friend Leo Housakos, now a senator, are discussed by the figures in the recordings as being able to secure the appointment of Robert Abdallah as president of the Port of Montreal in 2007.

``I'll start talking to (Housakos), if you want, if he's ready to put his buddy Soudas in the business. His buddy Soudas, he can twist arms harder than anyone else,'' Poulin says in the recording to someone cited as Accurso.

Poulin adds later: ``Maybe he could come up with some compensation if he succeeds in delivering something,'' referring to Soudas as the ``real boss of Quebec.''

Accurso is a shareholder in a number of engineering and construction firms in Quebec, two of which recently pleaded guilty to evading $4.1 million in taxes. Some of the evidence in the case came from an ongoing investigation into Mafia activities in Quebec.

Accurso's companies have been highlighted in media investigations of bid-rigging in the province's construction industry.

Accurso has sued Radio-Canada twice for reports on corruption in the construction industry and links to organized crime, and has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

Poulin, president of Groupe S.M. International, acknowledged in a statement Thursday one of the recordings was an interception of a private telephone conversation without his permission. He is suing La Presse newspaper for posting the audio on its website.

Poulin's named appeared on the guest list for an exclusive cocktail reception with Conservative government ministers at a major fundraiser for Harper in Montreal in 2009, co-organized by Housakos.

Housakos, who is purported to be one of the voices in one of the calls, did not respond to a call and email request for comment, nor did Accurso.

Soudas has categorically denied having discussed the appointment of Robert Abdallah to the Port of Montreal with anyone outside of government.

Both Harper and Soudas have acknowledged that the Prime Minister's Office did indicate its preference for Abdallah as port president at one point, but he was ultimately not chosen. Abdallah, Housakos and Soudas all once worked at the City of Montreal.

Abdallah was later hired as an executive at one of Accurso's firms, Gastier. He did not return a call for comment.

``I can't speak to private discussions of individuals but ... it is crystal clear, anyone who wants to influence the Prime Minister's Office, they will find the door padlocked,'' Soudas told reporters.

Opposition leaders weren't accepting the denials.

``Harper should fire Soudas,'' said Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

``It's all part of a pattern. We have a fraudster in the office of the prime minister, we have four people charged with election fraud, we can't put up with this anymore, it's become more and more ridiculous. Mr. Harper's defence shows his contempt for Canadians.''

Added Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe: ``I think (Soudas) should be dismissed as long as light is not shed on what really happened, and Mr. Harper has the duty to tell people what really happened with that case.''

Last December, Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced a special unit to investigation crime in the construction industry.

Benoit Lebonte, a high-profile Montreal opposition leader, quit in 2009 after saying his campaign had received cash donations from Accurso. He also alleged a widespread system of kickbacks within Montreal City Hall.

The Montreal mayor's former right-hand man, Frank Zampino, vacationed on Accurso's yacht before and after one of Accurso's companies was awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to install water meters as part of a consortium.

Zampino had gone on to work at another engineering firm that was also part of the consortium, and quit when the yacht stories came out. He maintained that he had never intervened on behalf of any company.

The $355-million water-meter contract was ultimately cancelled following the revelation and a critical auditor general's report.

Housakos has been linked to Accurso in the past.

He told the online news website Rue Frontenac in 2009 that he was casually acquainted with Accurso.

``Yes, I know him,'' Housakos said. ``I have met him a few times. He's a very big businessman.''

Labonte told Radio-Canada around the same time that it was Accurso who introduced him to Housakos.

``Mr. Accurso referred me to Mr. Housakos who I didn't know, and the next day, I met Leo Housakos,'' Labonte said.

Housakos was also head of the Action Democratique du Quebec's fundraising arm. Former ADQ Leader Mario Dumont said in 2009 that he too had met with Accurso, who was a supporter of the party.

A fundraising reception for the ADQ in 2007 was held at one of Accurso's properties in Laval, Que.

``Accurso, the engineering firms, the construction firms, etc., all the politicians know them,'' Dumont told the Journal de Montreal. ``They're the ones who build in Quebec, they're the ones who build Quebec.''

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