An RCMP search at the head office of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. is another blow against a company that is already coping with investigations into allegations of corruption and impropriety by the Montreal-based engineering giant that now encompasses five countries.
Friday’s raid was the second time in six months that RCMP officials have descended with search warrants on the company, which gained an international reputation as one of the world’s leading engineering firms but is now grappling with scandals, executive departures, questions about its business ethics and allegations of involvement in a plot to help a son of Moammar Gadhafi escape from Libya.
SNC is among the most recognizable Canadian companies around the world and operates in dozens of countries, including many with notoriously corrupt governments. In the past few months, unprecedented scandals have shaken its foundation and forced the departure of chief executive Pierre Duhaime. The company has insisted that it is co-operating with all of the probes and that it has strengthened its internal controls and business practices.
Investigations into SNC’s conduct are under way in Canada, Bangladesh, India, Mexico and Libya. SNC has also conducted an internal probe into allegations that $56-million in improper payments went to commercial agents to help secure construction contracts in unnamed countries. The company has said the money is missing and that it cannot identify the agents. That probe led the company to relieve Mr. Duhaime of his duties as CEO last month. It also prompted the departure of Riadh Ben Aissa, an executive vice-president who ran SNC’s construction operations worldwide and oversaw the company’s work in Libya. The company did not give locations for the projects, but some of the payments were made through an SNC office in Tunisia.
Many of the other investigations relate to allegations of corruption. In India and Bangledesh, officials allege SNC bribed government officers to win two major contracts: a power project in India and a bridge in Bangladesh partly financed by the World Bank. The RCMP has searched an SNC office in the Toronto area in connection with the Bangladesh case, and the World Bank temporarily suspended an SNC subsidiary from bidding on World Bank projects. The allegations in Mexico involve a bizarre plot to spirit Saadi Gadhafi, the son of the late dictator, out of Libya during the height of last year’s rebellion. And in Libya, questions have been raised about Mr. Ben Aissa’s close ties to Saadi Gadhafi, which helped SNC win nearly $1-billion worth of contracts in that country.
SNC has denied the allegations and says it is co-operating with all of the investigations.
SNC’s chairman Gwyn Morgan announced Mr. Duhaime’s departure three weeks ago and said the company has turned over material related to the Libyan projects to the RCMP and other agencies. “The big thing for us is to just turn over whatever we have and whatever we've learned to the authorities, which is what we're doing,” Mr. Morgan told reporters last month. “We have no idea where they're going to take that, but we'll co-operate in every possible way.”
It’s not clear what the RCMP was looking for on Friday, and police spokesman Marc Menard would say only that “this is an investigation that is ongoing.”
Employees were seen leaving the building and some said they had been ordered out. The address of the company's headquarters, 455 René-Lévesque Blvd. West., appears on several documents that suggest a Montreal connection to the unfolding investigation into recent events in Mexico and North Africa.
Information obtained by The Globe and Mail in Libya shows that officials inside the Montreal headquarters approved many of the details concerning SNC-Lavalin's operations in that country. Some of these were prosaic engineering plans, such as SNC's 154-page “master plan,” dated August, 2010, for a green belt of parkland, two kilometres wide and 60 kilometres long, that was intended to run along Libya's coastline west of Tripoli. The document notes that the plans were drawn up on request from the “Executing Agency,” a joint venture between SNC-Lavalin and Saadi Gadhafi's military-funded Libyan Corps of Engineers.
SNC-Lavalin's 2010 contract agreement to build a prison in the desert near Tripoli also included a spot for the signature of the younger Mr. Gadhafi. Signing on behalf of SNC-Lavalin was Mr. Ben Aissa; while the Montreal address appears on the contract, Mr. Ben Aissa also maintained an office in Tunis, and was listed as “general manager, Libya branch.”
The same Montreal address appears at the top of a letter published by CBC News, dated Aug. 15, 2011, which shows former SNC-Lavalin executive Stephane Roy asking for the services of Cynthia Vanier, a consultant now jailed in Mexico on suspicion of leading a conspiracy to smuggle Saadi Gadhafi to a safe location. The letter makes no mention of moving Mr. Gadhafi, who is under a UN travel ban, but describes how Mr. Roy wanted Ms. Vanier's advice about sending up to 1,000 employees back into Libya after the change of government while ensuring they “remain neutral, objective, and not express opinions as to the recent events.”
Ms. Vanier has denied all the allegations against her.
Mr. Ben Aissa, who was born in Tunisia, has denied any wrongdoing. He has also threatened to sue SNC over the company’s suggestion he was fired. He was not available for comment and is believed to be living in Tunisia.
Six players in SNC-Lavalin’s work in Libya
Here are six of the players involved with SNC-Lavalin's work in Libya:
Mr. Gadhafi, 38, led the Corps of Engineers, a branch of the Libyan armed forces that had some civilian duties, such as planting trees and refurbishing hospitals. Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that he and his subordinates were also involved with training elite commando teams and buying advanced weapons.
Riadh Ben Aissa
The Globe and Mail revealed in January that Mr. Ben Aissa, 53, worked closely with Mr. Gadhafi, offering him help with the basic structure of his corps and setting up a joint venture with the dictator's son. Less than a month later, Mr. Ben Aissa left his job as executive vice-president for SNC-Lavalin Group.
CBC broke the news in February that Mr. Roy, a vice-president at SNC-Lavalin, was at the scene in Mexico when local authorities arrested a group of people accused of plotting to help Mr. Gadhafi escape from North Africa. Mr. Roy also left his job soon afterward.
Mr. Duhaime resigned in March, after less than three years as CEO of SNC-Lavalin. His departure came after an internal company investigation found that he improperly approved $56-million in payments to unknown “agents” retained by Mr. Ben Aissa.
Ms. Vanier, a consultant from Mount Forest, Ont., was arrested in Mexico City on Nov. 10, 2011, on charges of planning an illegal extraction of Mr. Gadhafi and his family from North Africa. She denies the allegations, but acknowledges that SNC-Lavalin hired her for “fact finding” in Libya that summer.
Mr. Béland, 60, an SNC-Lavalin vice-president, worked with Mr. Ben Aissa in Libya. Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that he helped to negotiate the company's joint-venture agreement with Saadi Gadhafi's Corps of Engineers. He remains listed as a vice-president with the company.