When gunmen breached the gates surrounding Guest Palace 12 in Tripoli, they discovered a kind of yard unrecognizable to most Libyans: a lawn so green and lush and manicured that it might have been a little golf course.
With NATO planes screaming overhead on the hunt for Moammar Gadhafi and his sons, the intruders ran down a paved road, past rose gardens and ornamental fences, into a two-storey building with a grand foyer. They did not bother to pass any bags through the X-ray scanner that stood mutely in the lobby. Skidding over the polished stone floor, they also ignored a metal detector.
Everywhere they looked, there was not a soul left among the staff of the Tripoli offices of SNC-Lavalin, the Canadian engineering giant. Perhaps the intruders knew the company was building an institution that Gadhafi had intended for their ilk—a prison. In any case, the gunmen were seized with the fervour of revolution, and perhaps the prospect of looting flatscreen televisions; they went berserk. They ransacked cupboards, yanked drawers from desks, scattered papers, and marked their conquest with smears of printer ink.
Many of the memos and letters trampled under the rebels’ boots bore the signature of Riadh Ben Aïssa, a jet-setting SNC executive who turned this despotic desert nation into his crowning achievement. For SNC, Libya was the castle that Ben Aïssa built—and now the barbarians were past the gate.
That was September, 2011. Now Ben Aïssa sits in a jail cell in Switzerland, detained, without charge, on suspicion of paying bribes in North Africa, among other crimes. The 54-year-old, who was once considered a legend within SNC for his ability to fix any problem, now finds himself the leading character in a boardroom parable about the danger of doing business with corrupt regimes.
At SNC, Ben Aïssa has been disappeared. The company no longer refers to him by name; rather he is one of the “certain individuals who are not or no longer employed by the Company.” Forensic auditors enlisted by SNC’s board say Ben Aïssa doled out $56 million to shadowy foreign agents in an effort to land business; SNC says it cannot trace the money (all currency in U.S. dollars unless otherwise noted). This puts the company in the sights of a federal law that prohibits Canadian businesses from paying bribes abroad. While Swiss prosecutors explore whether Ben Aïssa used their country’s secretive banking system, RCMP officers in Ottawa are rooting through his e-mails and other SNC records to determine precisely how he secured so many lucrative construction deals in some of the world’s most corrupt corners. The former executive is also one of the prime targets of two class-action lawsuits filed by disgruntled shareholders. And that does not complete the list of Ben Aïssa’s woes: Cohn & Wolfe, the public relations company he enlisted to defend his reputation after his abrupt dismissal from SNC, is suing for unpaid fees.
How did it come to this? SNC has declined to allow any of its staff to give interviews; for months, all answers to questions have been restricted to e-mail exchanges with a single public-relations executive. But SNC executives and spokespeople have told journalists they are still learning things about Ben Aïssa’s business, and the company has promulgated the idea that Ben Aïssa was a rogue operator who ran his own private fiefdom. Perhaps. But dozens of interviews with former SNC-Lavalin executives, engineers and other insiders, as well as thousands of pages of documents obtained by The Globe and Mail, suggest a different narrative—that Ben Aïssa, who was known at senior levels in the company for using “all means necessary” to land business, was all too good at doing what the company wanted.
Some wealthy foreign students arrive in the West with a sense of entitlement and then drift through their studies. Not Riadh Ben Aïssa. The commerce undergrad was focused on one thing: “learning, getting ready for the major leagues,” his former roommate Patrick Kelly says. “He wished that he would be, one day, a big name.”
Ben Aïssa enrolled first at the Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia before transferring to the University of Ottawa in the early 1980s. Kelly sensed his roommate at U of O was destined for great things when the Tunisian student, then in his 20s, returned from a weekend trip to New York. Entranced by the power and prestige of the World Trade Center, Ben Aïssa was practically bursting with dreams of working high up in the glinting towers, the pinnacle of the business world.