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.
The son of a doctor, Ben Aïssa was one of three siblings who enrolled at Canadian universities in the 1980s. (His sister went to McGill for architecture, his brother to the University of Ottawa medical school.) Ben Aïssa was fluent in French, and proficiency in English was not a requirement in either of the universities he attended. Yet by the time most students were sleepily stumbling into their first lecture of the morning, Ben Aïssa had already finished a private English lesson. He knew nothing about hockey, but he cheered wildly for the New York Islanders when they won the Stanley Cup in 1982—because, he explained to his roommate, he preferred winners.
After leaving the University of Ottawa with two undergraduate degrees and an MBA, Ben Aïssa launched his own consulting firm, specializing in studies of emerging markets. It soon became clear that this chosen specialty—and Ben Aïssa’s background—were a neat fit with the strategic needs of Lavalin Inc. Quebec’s largest engineering firm was bent on growing in francophone Africa and the Middle East.
Ben Aïssa joined Lavalin in 1985, and soon made his mark. One former executive says it was a $600-million contract for a passenger rail system in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, that first earned the young graduate accolades within the company. And it boded well for Ben Aïssa’s career that the overseer on the project was Jacques Lamarre, one of the four founding shareholders at Lavalin.
Lamarre, who retired from SNC-Lavalin in 2009, is a titan of the Quebec business community. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, he sits on the boards of the Royal Bank of Canada and Suncor Energy, and is a strategic adviser to law firm Heenan Blaikie. From the mid-1980s, the trajectories of Lamarre’s and Ben Aïssa’s respective careers were highly correlated: When Lamarre served as an executive vice-president with territorial responsibility for the Middle East, Ben Aïssa was one of his charges; during Lamarre’s tenure as CEO, which began in 1996, Ben Aïssa was elevated to Lamarre’s “Office of the President.” In a book published to commemorate SNC’s centennial, the men earn the sobriquet of “firemen”—company parlance for the sort of executives who could be relied on to extract SNC from trouble.
The book cites a specific example of a young Ben Aïssa jetting off to his native Tunisia to talk down a disgruntled client who was threatening to sue for $3 million. “Within a couple days, [Ben Aïssa] had managed to convince them that it was in their best interests to drop the lawsuit and give Lavalin an extension to finish the work.” (Lamarre, citing the ongoing investigations into Ben Aïssa’s more recent actions, declined via a spokesperson to be interviewed or to answer e-mailed questions.)
Although SNC-Lavalin is one of Canada’s few true international champions, its many successes have obscured the fact that it has suffered from the modern corporate malaise of housing rival internal cultures following a merger.
SNC’s chief executive in 1991, Guy Saint-Pierre, deliberately used the word “merger” in all of his public statements, but his language could not mask what everyone knew: Lavalin, privately owned by four engineers—brothers Jacques and Bernard Lamarre, Marcel Dufour and Armand Couture—had leapt into some foolish deals. The first blow was the 1986 purchase of a Montreal petrochemical plant that was hemorrhaging money. But the knockout punch came when Lavalin experimented with playing airplane broker for a Soviet airline, which backed out of the deal in 1990, resulting in Lavalin losing a $45-million deposit.
Potential purchasers of Lavalin had reason to be wary. The firm had operations in some of the world’s most unstable regions, including a crumbling Soviet Union and coup-prone African countries. As a private firm, its books were like a black box.
But Quebec Inc.—that fusion of state and corporate interests that gives the province its distinct business culture—does not like to see its celebrated indigenous companies disappear. The union of Lavalin and SNC is widely believed to have involved government pressure. SNC, the smaller company, acquired Lavalin’s still-profitable engineering assets, and, in the process, created a juggernaut. Head counts at the time were put at 2,500 for SNC and 4,000 for Lavalin, according to a retired vice-president.
If the union was a shotgun marriage with Quebec Inc. in the role of the determined father, then Lavalin was the penniless, adventure-seeking groom, and SNC was the cautious, reserved bride. The smaller company was risk-averse, publicly traded and far more transparent than Lavalin. And, compared to Lavalin, SNC was less dependent on projects in troubled countries. High on the list of priorities for the new unified company was getting a handle on Lavalin International’s myriad opaque deals with rulers and kings around the world.
By the middle of the decade, this job had fallen to Rod Scriban, a senior vice-president who came from the SNC side and was placed in charge of SNC-Lavalin International in 1994. A civil engineer who helped design the towering LG-3 dam in the James Bay hydro project, Scriban was accustomed to scanning the horizon for problems. And he started to think that Riadh Ben Aïssa was a problem.
Ben Aïssa had been placed in charge of operations for the Middle East, based in his native country, Tunisia. Shortly after the appointment, he married a Saudi woman. (It was his second marriage; his first was to Marianne Vézina, whom he met in his first year of university. They divorced after six years.)
Scriban was alarmed to learn that Ben Aïssa had negotiated an unusual deal with his old bosses at Lavalin: He, with at least one of his new wife’s relatives, would together earn a 2% commission on any SNC contracts in Saudi Arabia, regardless of whether they performed any work.
“This arrangement seemed unethical and conflicted,” Scriban says, adding that the margins on such deals were so small that a 2% cut could seriously hurt the bottom line.
It wasn’t just this strange deal (which ultimately ended after Ben Aïssa’s second divorce) that gnawed at Scriban. As the senior vice-president in charge of every foreign representative, Scriban was supposed to have access to every country file. The Libya file didn’t seem to exist.
During Scriban’s tenure overseeing SNC-Lavalin International, Ben Aïssa had made inroads with the Gadhafi regime—the company had secured a lucrative contract on the Great Man-Made River project, an ambitious plan to pump water from deep desert aquifers to many of Libya’s cities. Scriban couldn’t locate a single piece of paper about this job or any of the Libyan projects in the pipeline. It was the only country file that he could not access. He was never given a definitive answer about why the Libyan work was so secret, he says. But he remembers thinking, “This file is so risky that people feel like hiding it.”
Scriban took his concerns about the Saudi deal to SNC-Lavalin’s legal department and asked it to investigate. When the lawyers got back to him, he was told that a message from “on high” had come down: “Stop badmouthing Ben Aïssa and lay off his case.” (SNC has confirmed that Ben Aïssa’s brother-in-law was a shareholder in the Saudi subsidiary.)
A few weeks later, Scriban says, he was sidelined. He couldn’t say whether his challenging Ben Aïssa’s special status resulted in his transfer—there were others vying for his job—but he says it may have played a role.
Almost a decade ago, when Colonel Moammar Gadhafi refashioned himself as an ally of the West and began distancing Libya from terrorism, he also unleashed upon the world a new wave of destructive chaos: his children.
In Geneva in 2008, his fifth-born son, Hannibal, was arrested for beating his servants. The second-youngest son, Saif el-Arab, plotted to spray acid in the face of a Munich nightclub bouncer after he and his girlfriend were thrown out of the venue in 2006 after she performed a strip act.
But there is one son, third-born Saadi, whose ostentatious antics stand out above the rest.
In his mid-20s, Saadi spent three seasons on the roster of various Italian pro soccer clubs, despite having no previous professional experience. The contracts were so inexplicable that most observers of the sport have attributed them to the elder Gadhafi’s close relationship with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. By the end of his soccer career, Saadi had logged a total of 25 minutes on the field. He appeared in only two games.
But the comedic value of the soccer stint is limited. At a game in Tripoli in 1996, fans booed a referee’s call that favoured Saadi’s team. A riot ensued. According to The New York Times, between 20 and 50 people were killed, some of them shot by Saadi’s bodyguards.
After soccer, Saadi moved on to Hollywood, where he launched a production company, Natural Selection. Its only films—Isolation and The Experiment—went straight to video. Armed with a reported $100-million bankroll, Saadi attracted a few recognizable names—Mickey Rourke, Adrien Brody, Forest Whitaker—to film projects that quickly vanished into obscurity.
Saadi was torn between his playboy pursuits and his sense of destiny. When the sun came up after a long night of courting strippers in Paris, shooting impalas in Tanzania, or crashing his yacht in Sardinia, he still desperately wanted to be viewed as a leader.
As Saadi reached his 30s, his father was making over the image of Libya, and himself, from an outlaw that sponsored terrorism to a viable international partner.
After decades of isolation, the country did not have the modern infrastructure expected from an oil-rich nation. That pent-up demand was unleashed with the lifting of Western economic sanctions in a series of steps from 2004 to 2006. Libya went on a shopping spree. Through the magic of diplomacy, the Gadhafis were transformed from pariahs into valuable customers for some of the world’s biggest firms. Prime Minister Paul Martin headed a trade delegation to Libya in 2004; another followed under the Harper Conservative government in 2008.
SNC was only one of the Canadian companies plunging into Libya. Petro-Canada bought a $75-million stake in an oil concern in the country in 2001, and then barrelled ahead in 2002 with a $3.2-billion deal for Veba Oil, an energy firm with significant Libyan assets. In 2008 Petro-Canada announced plans to double its Libyan output via a joint venture with the state oil company. The partners went 50/50 on a $7-billion (U.S.) development program. The Canadian firm won participation in the project over European giants such as Italy’s Eni SpA and France’s Total SA, which were also expanding operations in Libya.
SNC already had a foothold in the country, thanks to Ben Aïssa’s landing the $230-million water project in 1995, and during the gold-rush atmosphere of easing sanctions the company exerted itself to win favour. Some efforts reeked of obsequiousness. Ben Aïssa persuaded SNC to sponsor a 2005 exhibition of Saif Gadhafi’s paintings in Montreal, a show panned by critics at its various stops as “lurid,” “kitschy” and “a triumph of banality.” SNC also sponsored Al-Ittihad, a soccer club in Tripoli, in a deal that saw Saadi on the field with “SNC-Lavalin” emblazoned across his chest.
Gary Peters, who was a bodyguard to Saadi in Canada, has claimed that SNC also picked up a portion of the massive tab when Saadi, then in his film producer period, showed up at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008 and 2009. One account described Saadi holding court from the couches of the Panorama Lounge, a rooftop bar in Toronto’s posh Yorkville, while enjoying champagne, Beluga caviar and a private concert by 50 Cent. SNC executive Stéphane Roy was among the guests on that evening, Peters says.
Some of SNC’s efforts to woo the Gadhafis were more low-key. Saadi reportedly took English-language classes—under the protection of guards paid for by SNC—for a few months at the company’s offices in Toronto, meanwhile living in a $1.55-million (Canadian) penthouse he purchased in May, 2008. Property records show that the person who looked after the condominium fees and related issues was a Geneva-based lawyer, Roland Kaufmann. According to Peters, Kaufmann served as a financial adviser to Gadhafi. But the details of the condo purchase are difficult to verify because Kaufmann referred questions to a criminal defence lawyer, who declined to comment.
Peters claims that SNC was also giving cash payments to Saadi during this period. But the allegation raises a question: How exactly did SNC win Saadi’s trust? As the darling son of a dictator who used Libya’s overstuffed treasury as a private bank account, Saadi was never strapped for cash. Lavish parties, moose-hunting trips and soccer-team sponsorship were nice gestures, but Saadi could not have been easily impressed by mere spending.
What was harder for him to get than such favours was his father’s respect. Moammar Gadhafi pushed his children to build their own prestige within the country, via businesses and militias. After humouring Saadi’s attempts to make his way in pro sport and Hollywood, Libya’s supreme ruler gave his son a written order in 2008, commanding Saadi to set up a new branch of the Libyan military.
The order briefly outlines a vision for a Military Engineering Corps, under Saadi’s personal leadership and funded from the national defence budget. Like many missives from Moammar Gadhafi, the order is vague. It lists “military duties” first among the responsibilities of the new unit, but then discusses ways the Corps could serve the country—mostly tasks usually associated with civilian engineers. Still, the dictator was making himself clear: Saadi must get serious.
Saadi had barely more qualifications to run a military engineering operation than he did to play pro soccer. But luckily, in this arena, he could hire the expertise he needed.
In November, 2008, while Saadi was still in his film period, Ben Aïssa sent him a formal proposal suggesting that the brand-new Military Engineering Corps should set up a joint venture with SNC-Lavalin. The proposal emphasized SNC’s history as a defence contractor, with 37 of the 41 pages in the document including the word “military.” Text accompanying an organizational chart said that SNC personnel could supervise “security specialists” for implementation of military projects “tailored to meet specific military security, execution and deployment requirements of the office of the commander chief [sic] of engineers of Libya.”
Saadi, the newly minted commander who demanded that his entourage refer to him by his official title, “Brigadier Engineer Saadi,” personally approved a crest that would be worn on the uniforms of the men who answered to him. A draftsman’s compass represented his joint venture with SNC-Lavalin. Other items symbolized the unit’s specialties: roads, tunnels, waterworks, educational facilities, military fortifications. At the centre of the crest was an orange starburst, representing an exploding land mine.
If a Canadian company like SNC—a onetime land-mine manufacturer—wants to help a foreign army, any products sold may fall under export control regulations. The company says its operations did not run afoul of those rules: “To the best of our knowledge, SNC-Lavalin has never been involved in any Libyan programs related to military technology, munitions or combat,” SNC spokeswoman Leslie Quinton wrote in an e-mail.
The board of directors for the joint venture included a former official with the Libyan football federation and Abdulrahman Karfakh, a notorious bribe collector for one of Saadi’s older brothers. It’s not clear how many of Saadi’s ambitions for his military unit turned into reality in the years before the revolution. An inventory list for three of his engineering brigades calls for each to be equipped with toolboxes and trailers for planting mines. Another document, marked “Top Secret,” prepared by a lieutenant-colonel, suggests that engineers in a remote southern town would also be equipped with mine-planting devices. As well, Saadi’s men were shopping for state-of-the-art equipment for mine removal, including the MK III Husky mine detection vehicle used by Canadian forces.
Saadi appears to have been putting together an elite special-forces team and looking for advanced weaponry. A 54-page training manual suggests that Saadi wanted his men to be prepared to handle offensive and defensive chemical-weapons operations, among other skills. Photographs show a grinning Saadi meeting a sales team for the French-made Rafale fighter jet. The jet also appears on operational plans that showed how Libya could build a commando force numbering 3,000 men, capable of operating independently of the rest of the Libyan military on air, water and land.
Saadi’s plans called for attack helicopters and short-range missile systems mounted on trucks. His elite forces would carry shoulder-mounted missiles for destroying tanks, as well as laser guidance devices for directing air strikes. Saadi was moving forward with buying some of this equipment—his subordinates had glossy brochures for modern missiles and had end-user certificates for attack boats.
Such hardware is easily obtained by any oil-rich autocrat, however; the more difficult part is human resources. Saadi reached outside of Libya for the expertise to build his organization. His files included the resumés of former French special forces officers, apparently offering their services as consultants. It’s not just the sober expressions on the profile photos of these chiselled men that makes them appear deadly serious; it’s also the clandestine adventures described in their curricula vitae. One resumé mentions a history of assistance to Afghan guerrillas during the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s; leadership of a “sabotage cell”; and work as a security adviser for the French president.
A less intimidating team of experts from SNC also offered their services. A 2009 technical services agreement between SNC and the Corps of Engineers shows that SNC planned to offer advice about the structure, staffing and mission of the Corps. The proposed SNC consulting team included Vice-Admiral (ret.) Ron Buck, former second-in-command of the Canadian armed forces, and Gary Wiseman, former chief engineer for the Canadian military’s industrial task force. (SNC and Buck both declined to comment on whether the proposed team members received any payment.) This was a relatively small consulting deal for SNC, worth only $1 million over six months, but the paper trail shows that Saadi felt he needed the advice. He asked for more consultations the following year.
SNC, a company active in more than 100 countries in addition to its substantial Canadian footprint, was growing its Libyan business.Revenue was on track to reach $418.2 million (Canadian), or 7% of the company total, by 2010. Things were looking up for the Libyan file, for the go-where-others-dare-not tendency it represented in the company, and for Riadh Ben Aïssa.
By 2008, CEO Jacques Lamarre had placed Ben Aïssa in charge of all international construction—a division that had made an aggressive push into countries where other firms were reluctant to operate, including Algeria and Venezuela. Ben Aïssa became responsible for 10,000 employees and churned out contracts worth hundreds of millions in Libya alone: The company was drilling wells, manufacturing concrete pipes, drawing up proposals for new parkland, developing oil and gas facilities, and constructing a new airport terminal.
A company spokeswoman says the only project that involved formal co-operation between Saadi’s engineering corps and SNC was the $275-million Guryan “rehabilitation centre,” a sprawling prison in the desert near Tripoli (a project undertaken even though Libya had a history of detaining dissidents without trial, as well as torturing and killing them). A letter from December, 2009, shows that Saadi was personally involved with handling at least some contracts besides Guryan. The letter is a warm note to Ben Aïssa regarding the airport project, celebrating “the commitment and lasting contribution of SNC-Lavalin...to the development and prosperity of Libya.”
While SNC’s business in Libya was growing, benefits flowed to Ben Aïssa’s relatives as well. Some of the company’s Libyan operations were organized from SNC’s office in Tunis, which sat on property belonging to the Ben Aïssa family. SNC hired a firm headed by Ben Aïssa’s sister, McGill-trained Ramla Benaïssa, for architectural work on the prison. (She has declined to answer questions about how and why she was awarded the contract.) The company also purchased technical equipment from Orbit Media, an import business run by Ben Aïssa’s mother from a storefront just around the corner from SNC’s front gate in Tunis.
For all of Ben Aïssa’s good fortune in Libya, he could not relax and enjoy it. A former employee who served under Ben Aïssa says that he was a steamroller of a boss, who screamed at his underlings when things went wrong on the airport project. “I was flabbergasted,” the former employee said. “He was yelling on the phone for two hours. The contract said we must build the airport in two years. But it wasn’t possible, and we didn’t have enough money.” He added: “You know, I just read the biography of Steve Jobs, and he reminded me of Riadh. You’re his buddy or his worst enemy.”
Back in Canada, everything regarding Ben Aïssa was seemingly copacetic. He was invited onto the advisory board of his alma mater, the University of Ottawa’s business school. In June of 2009, he co-chaired a charity soirée with National Bank chief executive Louis Vachon. The event, which benefited the Canadian Centre for Architecture, was featured in the society pages of the Montreal Gazette, where Ben Aïssa was photographed with his third wife, Sara Al-Molki. A former executive said that, within SNC’s offices, it was generally understood that doing business in North Africa required some compromises. “His downfall was not corruption,” the former executive said. “To me, his problems started when things got political.” Indeed: The Arab Spring was a political earthquake across a region where strongmen had enjoyed generations in power and then abruptly found themselves challenged by Internet-savvy revolutionaries. As the streets filled with angry protesters, SNC employees joined the expat workers scrambling for the docks and airports.
Saadi went in the opposite direction, flying into the epicentre of the uprising in February, 2011. A United Nations investigation would later find that Moammar Gadhafi sent two trusted officials to “take control on the ground” in the rebellious eastern city of Benghazi. The UN report did not name either official, but a well-informed source says that one of them was Saadi.
Saadi had little experience with handling crises, much less a full-blown uprising, and the situation in Benghazi quickly went sideways. The BBC quoted a witness who said Saadi personally gave an order to shoot unarmed demonstrators. Saadi later denied this. But whatever the impetus, Libyan soldiers unleashed heavy weapons on the crowds. The United Nations Security Council reacted on Feb. 26, 2011, with a resolution that imposed a travel ban on Saadi and other members of Libya’s ruling family. In particular, Saadi was sanctioned for “command of military units involved in repression of demonstrations.” His bank accounts were frozen with another resolution the following month. Saadi would later escape to Niger, where he remains under what his lawyer describes as “virtual house arrest” because of the travel ban.
Even if the world had abruptly turned against him, Ben Aïssa did not abandon his favourite son of the dictator. An SNC insider says that during the first months of the revolution, Ben Aïssa continually assured fellow executives that the uprising would be crushed. That lingering sense of loyalty may help to explain a bizarre footnote to Ben Aïssa’s story: the tale of Cyndy Vanier and the alleged plot to smuggle Saadi to a safe house in Mexico.
On June 30, 2011, Ben Aïssa’s long-serving controller, Stéphane Roy, signed a deal with Vanier, a mediator whose prior experience was principally with Canadian native groups. The commission called for “fact finding and mediation.”
Vanier flew to the war zone on a private jet and put together a report. Vanier depicted NATO’s intervention as harmful to the Libyan government’s efforts to make peace—an unusual perspective at a time when regime soldiers were blasting rebels with artillery and truck-mounted rockets. SNC paid Vanier $100,000 for the five-page report. Mexican authorities arrested her in November, 2011, and accused her of working on a bigger project, a complex plan to start a new life for Saadi in a beachfront house. She denies wrongdoing, and remains jailed.
Ben Aïssa and Roy avoided trouble when Vanier was arrested, although Roy was in Mexico at the time. They remained with SNC until February, 2012, when the company ousted them amid a growing chorus of questions about SNC’s relationship with the Gadhafi family. Later that month, the company announced it was launching an internal investigation. The probe alleged that CEO Pierre Duhaime had improperly approved $56 million in payments to unknown “agents” hired by Ben Aïssa. Duhaime resigned in March and SNC referred the file to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which raided the company headquarters in April. That raid was reportedly conducted on the basis of information from Swiss authorities, who arrested Ben Aïssa shortly afterward on suspicion of corruption, fraud and money laundering.
The legal fallout may continue for years. Libya’s new revolutionary regime wants Saadi extradited to face trial in Tripoli, and has constructed courtrooms in an effort to persuade the international community that it is competent to hold fair proceedings. Saadi has hired a lawyer who specializes in war-crime charges.
If the RCMP goes ahead with a prosecution under Canada’s Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, it would be the force’s first attempt to apply the law to a blue-chip company. So far, Canada has secured only two convictions under the act; the second is the one that bears on the SNC case. In 2011, Niko Resources, a mid-cap oil and gas firm based in Calgary, admitted that it had bribed a Bangladeshi energy minister by paying for his flights to Alberta and New York. An SNC spokeswoman has defended the company’s role in Saadi’s many trips to Canada as “hospitality.” But the Niko case suggests that the courts may take a different view.
These proceedings, along with those concerning Cyndy Vanier and the class-action lawsuits, should answer many questions about the rise and fall of Ben Aïssa. But one upshot of SNC-Lavalin’s colossal failure in Libya already seems clear. Not only is the world getting smaller, it’s also slowly becoming more democratic and transparent. If you do business with a despot, even an officially reformed one, you may—sooner or later—find yourself scattering your plans across a slippery marble floor and running for your life.
Research assistance by Hannah Mintz, Fatima Elkabti and Raghda Abouelnaga of the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism