A company spokeswoman confirmed the arrangement and said it complied with the company's ethics policy at the time.
Mr. Ben Aissa, who has an MBA from the University of Ottawa, got his start in 1985 with Lavalin before it merged with SNC in 1991. Lavalin had a proud history as one of Quebec's leading engineering firms, notably helping build the James Bay hydroelectric development project and the fabric roof on Montreal's Olympic Stadium. But it also had a reputation as a hard-charging risk taker with a penchant for aggressively pursuing work overseas.
Initially confined to selling the firm's services in North Africa and the Middle East, Mr. Ben Aissa's breakthrough came two years later, when he received a phone call from Marcel Dufour, one of Lavalin's co-owners, according to a recently published book commemorating SNC's 100th anniversary. “I hear that you are a capable Tunisian,” Mr. Dufour told the young marketer.
By the next day, Mr. Ben Aissa was back in his native country, persuading a client to drop a $3-million lawsuit and give Lavalin an extension on a contract.
Mr. Ben Aissa's status soared with lucrative contracts. One former executive said that Mr. Ben Aissa's first major success involved a $610-million deal for a subway system, awarded by the Turkish government in 1988. “That was his first shining star,” the former company official said. He collected more such victories in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Tunisia, but over the next decade he became increasingly focused on cracking the Libyan market.
A former resident of the eastern city of Benghazi recalled seeing Mr. Ben Aissa during an early visit to the country, feeling pity for him because no government officials would sit down with him for a meeting. “He couldn't get in the door,” he said.
In 1995, though, he nailed down a role for SNC in Libya's Great-Man Made River project in 1995, a $230-million job noted in the anniversary book as “a maddening contract, fraught with challenges.” This was just before detente was reached between Col. Gadhafi's regime and Western governments, who had distanced themselves from his dictatorship. According to the company's anniversary book, the contract opened the door in Libya to further work. “Now that the company had the Libyans' trust, Ben Aissa was in an excellent position to secure other contracts for the project.”
Not long after the international community warmed to Libya after Col. Gadhafi agreed in 2003 to pay billions of dollars in compensation for the Lockerbie bombing, , Mr. Ben Aissa started helping Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's sons with their personal ambitions.
He assisted with a 2005 exhibition of Saif Gadhafi's paintings in Montreal, sponsored by SNC-Lavalin but panned by critics (“a triumph of banality,” said a British newspaper). He gave regular cash payments to Saadi Gadhafi, sponsored a Gadhafi soccer club in Tripoli and arranged to cover the costs of a lavish trip Saadi made to Toronto in 2008, where he once owned a condominium and enjoyed a playboy-like lifestyle. Mr. Ben Aissa's involvement with the Gadhafis went much further. He formed a joint-venture with Saadi's Libyan Corps of Engineers to funnel projects to SNC. That led to work on a new airport and a massive prison in Tripoli, expected to house up to 5,000 inmates.
The company confirms that its headquarters in Tunisia sits on property owned by the former executive's family. It also acknowledges it is aware of unusual financial arrangements between the firm, his mother and former brother-in-law.
When asked about the fact that Tunisian land records show that SNC's offices in Tunis are located at an address owned since 1997 by “Benaissa Land,” Ms. Quinton, the SNC spokeswoman, did not comment on the appropriateness of the arrangement. “The property rented by SNC-Lavalin is paid at fair market terms,” she said.
That office is a modern three-storey building with opaque blue windows about a 15-minute drive from the centre of Tunis. It adjoins a smaller, cream-coloured storefront that houses Orbit Media, a company selling computers, paper shredders, and other office products. The two businesses, Orbit and SNC-Lavalin, share the same address.