As NATO bombs rained down on Libya last year in a bid to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the man in charge of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. ’s operations in the country made time to turn a profit.
Riadh Ben Aissa headed SNC’s global construction division and oversaw its Libyan unit, where he developed a close relationship with two of Gadhafi’s sons, Saadi and Saif.
Mr. Ben Aissa was forced out of SNC in February amid allegations he authorized $56-million in payments to commercial agents, who can’t be located. Mr. Ben Aissa, who worked mainly out of Tunis, has denied the allegations.
During much of the Libyan rebellion, he kept reassuring SNC employees that Col. Gadhafi would prevail. But as Mr. Ben Aissa was publicly talking about the regime’s survival, he was also taking some of his own money off the table.
On March 18, 2011, one day after the UN Security Council cleared the way for military strikes by approving a no-fly zone over Libya, Mr. Ben Aissa exercised 4,000 SNC stock options for a profit of $122,960, according to insider trading records.
A week later as NATO forces repeatedly bombed the country, he exercised 3,500 more options and pocketed $112,245.
Mr. Ben Aissa has not been available for comment and there is no evidence he sold the options out of fear that the strife in Libya would hurt the stock price of SNC, which had done hundreds of millions of dollars of projects in Libya.
Mr. Ben Aissa’s options were set to expire on May 6, 2011. (A stock option is a security that allows the holder to buys shares at a specified price.)
The regime collapsed in September after Tripoli fell and the Gadhafi clan scattered. By late October, Col. Gadhafi had been killed and his family had largely vanished. Saadi ended up in Niger and Saif was later captured and is being held in Libya.
SNC also pulled out of the country, leaving behind $22.9-million in cash and a host of unfinished projects.
One month later, on Nov. 10, Mr. Ben Aissa exercised 6,000 options for a profit of $347,450.
As the year wound down, SNC board’s began looking into allegations of wrongdoing by Mr. Ben Aissa and another former executive.
In December, Mr. Ben Aissa exercised 32,000 more options for a gain of $364,880, although records indicate he still owns the shares.
He still has 89,900 options according to trading records and it is not clear if the company will move to cancel options that have yet to vest. That could happen if SNC establishes that Mr. Ben Aissa was fired with cause. However, that isn’t certain. SNC announced his departure from the company on Feb. 9, saying only that he was “no longer in the employ of the company.” Mr. Ben Aissa shot back with a press release insisting he had resigned.
SNC also forced out chief executive Pierre Duhaime last month, alleging that he played a role in the $56-million worth of payments. But the company is not cancelling his unvested stock options and has agreed to offer him a $4.9-million “departure arrangement.”
SNC is trying to claw back some of the bonuses paid to Mr. Ben Aissa and Mr. Duhaime last year. The company said last month that the two men should pay back $42,800 and $184,000, respectively. Whether they have is not clear.
Complicating matters for SNC is the lack of an employment agreement with Mr. Ben Aissa. According to the company’s management circular, released last month, SNC had an employment agreement with Mr. Duhaime but said it had “no specific arrangements covering the other [executives]”
Mr. Ben Aissa has threatened to sue SNC over his departure, setting up what could be a lengthy legal battle over his ouster. Company spokeswoman Leslie Quinton declined comment.