Charges of bribery and fraud against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. were tested for the first time in a Montreal courtroom Monday as prosecutors began laying out their case against Canada's biggest engineering firm in a preliminary hearing expected to last roughly three weeks.
Lawyers for SNC-Lavalin immediately requested a publication ban on what is said in the courtroom, which Judge Claude Leblond of the Cour du Québec granted. The judge will decide whether there is enough evidence to force the company to stand trial.
The hurdle for going to trial is considered low in Canada and amounts to whether there is any evidence on which a jury could convict. "It's a charges screening mechanism," said Alan Sarhan of Bretton Woods Law Canada. "[They're saying] are we wasting the resources of the courts or not? If the answer is no, then they will proceed."
SNC-Lavalin chief executive Neil Bruce and his team are working behind the scenes on options for the company after it failed to secure a negotiated settlement with prosecutors that would put an end to legal proceedings. Among the things being considered to shield the company against a further share price decline is some kind of go-private transaction and winding down its Canadian operations, according to Desjardins Securities.
SNC stock fell the most in six years Oct.10 after the Public Prosecution Service of Canada decided not to enter a negotiated settlement with the company that could have suspended and eventually stayed attempted bribery and fraud charges against it under new corporate crime laws. The stock fell as much as 15 per cent to $43.82, its biggest intraday decline since February, 2012, according to Bloomberg data. It has regained some ground since, trading in Toronto Monday at about $46.41.
The Trudeau government introduced such negotiated settlements, known as Canada's remediation agreement system, earlier this year as a way for prosecutors to have another tool at their disposal in their effort to address corporate crime. The idea is that a company co-operates with authorities – admitting to certain facts, paying a financial penalty and implementing more rigorous ethics and compliance systems. In exchange, the companies avoid a potentially costly trial or criminal conviction that could harm employees and other third parties who didn’t take part in the alleged offence.
"The fact that we've not been invited to negotiate a remediation agreement makes no sense," Mr. Bruce wrote in the company's latest open letter published in several media. "As we remain open and committed to negotiating such an agreement, a lengthy court process may be a waste of taxpayers' money and resources."
Prosecutors laid rare corruption and fraud charges against SNC in February, 2015, alleging the company paid millions of dollars' worth of bribes to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011 to secure government contracts. The charges came despite the fact the company had completely overhauled its senior leadership and put in place what is now among the world’s best ethics and compliance programs.
If convicted, the company could be banned from doing work for the federal government for five to 10 years. In that situation, it would almost certainly be forced to lay off workers as its domestic contracts dry up.
But conviction is not a certainty, according to anti-corruption specialists. When a Swiss court in 2014 accepted a plea agreement for Riadh Ben Aissa, a former SNC-Lavalin vice-president whose actions are at the centre of the Canadian bribery allegations, the company was formally acknowledged as an “injured party.” In 2015, the SNC filed a lawsuit seeking to recover $125-million it says was embezzled by associates led by Mr. Ben Aissa and Sami Bebawi, his former boss. Both men have since left the company.