A former SNC-Lavalin official in North Africa said it was widely known within the company that Mr. Ben Aissa hired his relatives. “That's common,” the former official said. “You hire people you know, people you trust. Nepotism is part of the tradition in our culture.”
Mr. Ben Aissa's brother, Dr. Rafik Benaissa, also tried to do business in Libya. Dr. Benaissa, an orthopedic surgeon who practices in Minot, N.D., also runs a company that specializes in oil exploration and the sale of defence equipment.
In 2009, his company, Benaissa Oil, operated a booth at a defence expo in Tripoli, where, alongside a sea of vendors hawking surveillance systems and night vision goggles, Dr. Benaissa promoted U.S. and UK security products.
Dr. Benaissa declined an interview request and referred questions to a Montreal lawyer, Anthony Karkar. Mr. Karkar said his client had no relationship with the Gadhafis or SNC-Lavalin, and that he had never used his brother's ties to the regime to secure business. The fact that Dr. Benaissa had to attend a public exposition is evidence that he had no relationship with the Gadhafis, Mr. Karkar said.
“He wouldn't need to make a stand [at an exhibition]if he was close to the Gadhafis – let's face reality. All he would do is go and speak with the brother and he has the contact. He doesn't have to go and sell or show his stand,” the lawyer said, repeatedly pointing out that his client had obtained all the necessary approvals from the U.S. State Department to sell defence equipment abroad.
At times, Benaissa Oil has listed as its address the same Tunis office building that houses SNC-Lavalin's local headquarters but Mr. Karkar said his client effectively used the office as a mailbox.
When a correspondent for The Globe arrived to the address unannounced, a petite woman in her 70s, Baya Ben Aissa, identified herself as the owner of Orbit and mother of Riadh Ben Aissa. She said that her company has been supplying technology to SNC for years, but suggested that the business relationship recently broke down. (Orbit remains listed as an official supplier of the company.) “They are very badly organized at SNC,” Ms. Ben Aissa. “I don't want to work with SNC any more.” She would not go into details.
She stood erect with arms crossed, raising her voice as she complained about the way her son has been portrayed as the key figure in a corruption scandal. It was not Mr. Ben Aissa, but the company's leadership in Montreal, that made final decisions about deals in Libya, she said.
“There are false rumours in the Canadian press about him,” she said. “Very false.”