MONTREAL – A senator appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he could not possibly have known that some of his business contacts would someday be accused of having criminal Mafia links.
Sen. Leo Housakos reacted Wednesday to details emerging from Quebec’s construction inquiry, expressing frustration over what he called a smear-by-association campaign and a “witch-hunt.”
The inquiry has heard extensive testimony about Mafia ties to the construction empires of Tony Accurso and Paolo Catania — and, in an interview, Housakos laid out details of his past relationship with the two men who now face criminal charges.
He told The Canadian Press that he knew Catania well enough to receive, through him, an invitation to join a swanky, members-only club in Old Montreal. He also said he would see Accurso about “four or five times” per year for a decade, and frequented a restaurant Accurso owned near his house in Laval, Que.
None of which was illegal, Housakos noted. Nor did it mean he had any inkling of the criminal accusations that would someday be levelled against his associates.
“All of us, if we knew things 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, or five ago, things we know today, we would probably react differently,” Housakos said in the interview.
“But when you interact with people, and meet with people, and talk with people, you don’t assume that they will be accused or charged with serious crimes two or three or five years down the line…
“When I met these individuals I had no reason to believe that, three or four years later, the things that are coming out would be coming out.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that it noted the “very troubling” allegations emerging from the inquiry but didn’t see how Housakos had been implicated in anything.
The prime minister weighed in directly while standing next to the president-elect of Mexico on Wednesday.
During a joint news conference, Harper was asked whether he still had confidence in his senator. Harper replied with a lighthearted French proverb about hearsay: “I saw the man who saw the man who saw the bear.”
The prime minister then added in English, without referring to Housakos by name: “I have no information of any credible allegation against this particular individual.”
Housakos, a member of the Conservative caucus since late 2008 and an influential fundraiser for the party, came up at the inquiry Wednesday.
According to testimony, Housakos met at an exclusive club with two men who now face numerous criminal charges in an unrelated affair, including Catania. He was described as having attended two meetings and hosting one, all in 2007 and 2008, before he was appointed to the Parliament of Canada.
His name appears in a detailed ledger of people who frequented Club 357c, a high-end establishment located at that address on de la Commune Street, in the heart of Montreal’s old city.
The document was deposited Wednesday at Quebec’s Charbonneau Commission and it included Housakos’ name as well as those of two former Quebec Liberal cabinet ministers and local municipal councillors, among others.
Investigators said that names of people they did not recognize or considered irrelevant to their probe were blacked out in the documents released Wednesday.
However, Housakos’ name appeared three times in the 10-page document.
In the interview with The Canadian Press, Housakos said he welcomed the commission’s work but challenged some of the details.
For instance, he said he never held a fundraiser at the club and only organized a networking event where he introduced local players to a prominent politician in Quebec’s now-defunct Action democratique provincial party. Asked whether that politician was former leader Mario Dumont, he said: “Maybe.”
Housakos said the commission got other things wrong — insisting, for instance, that he had never sat down for a meeting at the club with Bernard Trepanier, a municipal political fundraiser now facing criminal charges and referred to in local media as, “Mr. Three Per Cent.”
He told The Canadian Press that he met several times with Catania as alleged in Wednesday’s testimony. But he said he didn’t see anything wrong with knowing Catania back then, before the allegations of criminal wrongdoing surfaced.
Housakos said the fundraising he did at the provincial and federal level was always legal with contributions coming in the permitted amounts, from individual citizens — and not in bulk payments, from companies. In any case, he said, he has scaled back his fundraising involvement to focus on his parliamentary duties.
And he lamented the damage to his reputation. He said he didn’t understand why his name had come up at the probe.
“At no time have I been called by the commission to be questioned or to testify and I would be more than happy to answer any other questions if they have any,” Housakos said, repeating several times that he supported the inquiry.
“I support their work, I encourage them in their work, I’m a little bit disappointed that they would allow my name to be mentioned without me being questioned… It would be nice to know why my name was being mentioned.
“Was it just to prove a point that these people frequented a lot of politicians at various levels in various parties? If that’s the reason, that’s not something I appreciate.”
Before his Senate appointment, Housakos was appointed by Harper to the board of Via Rail. He worked for BPR, one of Quebec’s largest engineering firms. And he was also a partisan political fundraiser, at the federal level and at the provincial level for the now-defunct ADQ.
Housakos’ name appears in a first instance for a breakfast meeting on May 17, 2007, hosted by Bernard Poulin, head of S.M. Group International, an engineering firm.
Two other names appeared on the list of attendees — including Trepanier, a fundraiser for the Union Montreal municipal party who has become dubbed “Mr. Three Per Cent” for the alleged corrupt fundraising practices of the city’s ruling party.
Housakos said he might have sat down with Poulin at the club but not Trepanier. He said he only recalled crossing paths with him there briefly.
Housakos and Poulin’s names surfaced during the 2011 federal election campaign amid a controversy surrounding the process by which appointments were made at the Montreal Port Authority.
An audio recording surfaced purporting to be the voices of Poulin and Accurso discussing how Housakos could help get Robert Abdallah appointed to the prestigious post. Housakos was referred to as “Leo” during the recording.
Accurso and Bernard Poulin have never commented directly on the recordings other than to underline that making recordings of private conversations without the consent of the parties is against the law.
When asked to comment on the recording Wednesday, Housakos said he did not lobby on Abdallah’s behalf — but he added that he knew Abdallah and would have promoted his candidacy, had he been asked.
Housakos also noted that in the end Abdallah, a former high-ranking Montreal public servant and construction executive, never got the post.
He challenged inquiry testimony that he raised money at the 357c club. Inquiry investigator Erick Roy had testified that Housakos’ meeting with construction figures illustrated how the world of construction and political financing intertwined.
“In this context, we see an entrepreneur who has been invited to a cocktail for the ADQ and we’ve seen the profile of Mr. Housakos,” Roy told the commission Wednesday.
“So what we see here is a direct link between entrepreneurs and party financing.”
Housakos challenged that finding. He said the meeting wasn’t a fundraiser, but rather a networking event involving professionals and businesspeople to discuss ADQ policies.
The club itself, where membership runs about $3,500 a year, is of no interest to Quebec’s corruption inquiry, commission counsel Denis Gallant noted Tuesday.
But the identity of some club guests is.
The released list includes numerous construction bosses, engineering firm executives, city officials, municipal politicians and a few Quebec Liberals.
The provincial Liberals who attended meetings include the former deputy premier, Line Beauchamp, and the former family minister, Tony Tomassi, who faces criminal charges in an unrelated matter. One of the party’s top organizers, Pierre Bibeau, was also on the list.
Inquiry investigators became interested in the club in October after a previous witness, a loanshark with ties to Catania, mentioned making a cash drop at the establishment for a municipal official who now faces criminal charges.
The place appears popular with politicians.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said she had been there a number of times. So had some of her ministers, one of whom was invited by member Lucien Bouchard — the former Parti Quebcois premier. A number of Liberals also described having visited the establishment.
And Quebec’s newest political party, the Coalition, can even claim the establishment as a place of prominence in its history. Media reports have said it was there in 2010 that Bouchard urged his former protege Francois Legault of the need for a new party in Quebec.
Beauchamp, who quit politics last spring when she was education minister at the height of the student crisis, also defended her reputation Wednesday.
She said she had performed her elected duties with integrity and without undue influence from the businesspeople she met.
“I’m not a marionette,” she said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “There wasn’t anyone holding my hand when I signed things, when I made a decision. There was no ventriloquist whispering words through me into a microphone. I take responsibility for everything I did.”
She said she was simply performing her duties when she held meetings with key economic players at that club.
Beauchamp was culture minister in 2007, when she attended a pair of meetings with construction-industry players; with municipal figures including Trepanier; and with her then-spouse Pierre Bibeau — a powerful Liberal organizer who has taken a leave of absence from his position at Loto-Quebec following allegations of illegal fundraising.