A Tunisian businessman claims he was shut out of SNC-Lavalin’s biggest Tunisian construction project because he refused to pay a bribe to one of the Quebec company’s top North African executives.
The allegations made by Wajdi Chortani, the general director of Enco Group, a Tunisian construction and engineering company, could not come at a worse time for SNC, which is under police investigation in Canada over $56-million in payments made in North Africa to “agents” to secure projects that have yet to be identified.
If Mr. Chortani’s allegations prove true, they would provide more evidence that SNC, one of the world’s biggest construction and engineering firms, was not in full control of its North African operations.
SNC has been embroiled for months in a scandal related to the payments, which it said were improper. SNC alleges the payments were made by Riadh Ben Aissa, the Tunisian executive vice-president who oversaw the company’s global construction activities, including several large Libyan projects secured during the reign of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
Mr. Ben Aissa, who has denied any wrongdoing, was pushed out of the company in February. A month later Pierre Duhaime, SNC’s chief executive officer, resigned. SNC alleges he approved some of the payments. SNC’s board of directors has launched an investigation into the payments in an effort to determine who ultimately received them and for which projects. The company’s Montreal headquarters has been raided twice by the RCMP.
Mr. Chortani’s complaint relates to a natural-gas-fired power project in Sousse, a Tunisian seaside city about 140 kilometres southeast of the capital Tunis. The project, worth about $320-million, was awarded in 2010 to SNC and is Italian partner, Ansaldo Energia. SNC, in turn, set out to hire local subcontractors to help build it.
Mr. Chortani’s company was one of the companies that bid for the subcontracting work. In an interview at the company’s modest offices in Sousse on April 16, he claimed he was verbally informed early this year that his company had won the deal, though no formal contract was signed. He said a series of meetings with SNC officials, among them Anis Mahmoud, Mr. Ben Aissa’s right-hand man on SNC’s big North African projects, ensued. Mr. Chortani said he never met Mr. Ben Aissa.
Sensing stalling tactics when he tried to nail down the contract, Mr. Chortani grew frustrated. He said he had a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Mahmoud on Feb. 3. During the meeting, Mr. Mahmoud asked him for 160,000 dinars (about $100,000 Canadian), he alleged. Speaking through an interpreter, he said he understood that the amount would be “cash money, [paid]directly to Mahmoud.”
Mr. Chortani said he did not agree or disagree to pay the amount. At a meeting last month, Mr. Chortani said, Mr. Mahmoud told him, “You will not be able to work on this [project]unless you meet my conditions.”
Mr. Chortani said he never got the contract and is suing SNC in Tunisia an effort to recoup the expenses related to preparing the bid.
Contacted by The Globe and Mail in Tunisia, Mr. Mahmoud, who works out of SNC’s North African head office in Tunis, referred all questions to SNC’s communications department in Montreal.
An SNC spokeswoman has said the award of the Sousse contracts did not deviate from the company’s normal tender process. Leslie Quinton, the spokeswoman, said in an e-mail on Sunday: “We are not prepared to debate Mr. Chortani’s allegations in public nor the results of the tender to which Mr. Chortani is referring (which has been evaluated and awarded according to our standard procurement policies).”
Since February, Mr. Chortani has been complaining to reporters and to SNC executives in Montreal about his alleged mistreatment. In a Feb. 22 e-mail to SNC, written in French, he said he was “penalized” by Mr. Mahmoud who “had lost all professional credibility.”