French authorities are now involved in the investigation into allegations of corruption at the Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and are looking at a suspicious $13.5-million payment that the company says was passed off as being part of a project in Abu Dhabi.
The payment is connected to the so-called Project A, a set of improper payments totalling $33.5-million in 2011, which were revealed in an internal review last year and led to the departure of SNC’s then-chief executive, Pierre Duhaime.
The Globe and Mail previously reported that an Alberta oil-sands treatment plant project had also been used to disguise payments that were part of Project A.
The latest development involves the embattled firm’s subsidiary in France, SNC-Lavalin Europe S.A.S., which was headquartered in the northern city of Reims until last November.
A prosecutor in Reims opened an investigation into the company’s French operations last July.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the prosecutor, Fabrice Belargent, said he launched his probe after an external auditor spotted “anomalies” in SNC-Lavalin Europe’s accounting books.
The auditor reported that a $13.5-million sum that was supposed to have been used for projects in Europe appeared instead to have been paid to someone in the Middle East, Mr. Belargent said.
The Reims prosecutor said he investigated the matter until December, when the file was transferred to a specialized financial investigation unit in Paris because there were now allegations that it involved corruption of foreign agents.
The Reims newspaper L’Union, which first revealed the French investigation on Tuesday, said French investigators executed a search warrant at SNC’s Reims offices last fall.
L’Union said the allegations were linked to a gas-complex project in Abu Dhabi. However, SNC-Lavalin says the Abu Dhabi project was used to camouflage the real destination of the $13.5-million sum.
“The Abu Dhabi accounting code was falsely used for mispayments,” company spokeswoman Leslie Quinton said in an interview.
She confirmed that French police had investigated at SNC-Lavalin’s Reims office but noted that there have been no arrests or charges stemming from the French probe.
The latest revelations come as the Montreal blue-chip company has been reeling from allegations of wrongdoing reaching the upper tiers of management.
Mr. Duhaime and former construction executive vice-president Riadh Ben Aïssa have been charged by Quebec’s anti-corruption squad with fraud, conspiracy and paying bribes in connection with the $1.3-billion contract granted to SNC-Lavalin to build a new hospital for Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre.
In a separate criminal investigation, Mr. Ben Aïssa was arrested and detained in Switzerland last year on allegations that he had a role in the payment of an estimated $160-million in bribes to Saadi Gadhafi, the son of the late Libyan dictator.
SNC announced last month a company-wide amnesty program to encourage staffers to report potential corruption. Until the end of August, employees will not be fired or face claims for damages if they voluntarily report violations of the company’s code of ethics and didn’t directly profit from the wrongdoing.