|The exterior of the Bell Centre. (QMI Agency/ELIZABETH LAPLANTE)
MONTREAL - Nine months after his appointment as vice-chairman of broadcasting at the Canadian Radio-Television and telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Tom Pentefountas placed himself in an awkward situation by spending an evening in Bell's corporate box at the arena that bears its name.
Bell confirmed that Pentefountas attended a Canadiens match at the Bell Centre in the telecom giant's loge on Dec. 8, 2011.
His presence in the Bell box raises questions, says an ethics expert, given that the CRTC regulates Bell and all other telecom companies.
The situation is all the more delicate given that Bell executives appeared before Pentefountas earlier this month at CRTC hearings into Bell's proposed deal to buy Astral Media.
The transaction, valued at $3.38 billion, is the largest in the history of the Canadian telecom industry.
Bell denies its executives discussed business with the CRTC vice-chairman.
"No lobbying took place," Bell's Marie-Eve Francoeur told QMI. "(Lobbying) meetings between Bell and CRTC commissioners ... are done by the rules and are publicly disclosed, as they should be."
Bell says political commentator Eric Duhaime, at the time a QMI Agency analyst, is the one who asked Pentefountas to enter its box.
A QMI source contradicts the company's claim, saying the CRTC executive was brought in by Line Maheux, director of government affairs at Bell.
Maheux is a former Reform Party strategist and she had organized the Bell Centre soiree that reunited ex-Reformers and members of Quebec's now-defunct ADQ party.
Pentefountas was president of the right-leaning ADQ's executive committee in 2007 and 2008.
Bell refused to comment on the conflicting accounts other than to say that "there was no special occasion at the loge on December 8, other than the Canadiens game."
Federal civil servants, including the CRTC chairs and vice-chairs, are governed by the Lobbying Act as well as Privy Council ethical rules, said CRTC spokesman Denis Carmel, who refused further comment.
According to ethics experts, Pentefountas didn't break the rules but operated in a grey area.
"There's sometimes a fine line between lobbying and social activities," said Raymond Hudon, a Laval University professor who specializes in lobbying issues.
Private ethics specialist Patrice Ryan said a senior official has a responsibility to be careful about who they meet.
"When you hold public office, you're no longer a normal individual," he said. "It's therefore important to consider gifts and invitations that you receive."
Barely three months after the Bell Centre party, Bell announced its plan to buy Astral.
Bell officials met Pentefountas five times between December 21, 2011, and March 17, 2012, with the last meeting coming the day after the announcement of the bid. All of the meetings were duly reported lobbying contacts.