One of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.’s principal lenders says the engineering firm has paid the price for wrongdoing committed by former employees and deserves a negotiated settlement to avoid a trial on criminal charges.
Louis Vachon, chief executive of National Bank of Canada, said SNC-Lavalin has already suffered significant damage in the wake of federal bribery and fraud charges filed against it in 2015. Prosecutors allege that SNC-Lavalin paid millions of dollars in bribes to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011 to secure government contracts.
The company’s reputation has taken a further bruising following allegations by Canada’s former minister of justice that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office put improper pressure on her to order a negotiated settlement – called a deferred prosecution agreement – with SNC-Lavalin. SNC’s shares have fallen 45 per cent since last June, exposing it to a takeover.
“I don’t think it’s true that they’re walking scot-free from this. They’ve paid a price,” Mr. Vachon told The Globe and Mail Wednesday. “The question is: To what extent do you want to damage a company just for the sake of justice? That’s why I think the deferred prosecution regime was put in place.”
With the comments, Mr. Vachon becomes the latest influential business leader to frame the controversy surrounding SNC-Lavalin as an existential one for the company and argue that Canadians cannot afford to lose a national champion of its size and calibre. Others have countered that SNC’s business in Libya helped sustain a brutal dictatorship and that the company should be held to account for that.
A Quebec Court judge is expected to rule next month on whether there is enough evidence to bring the company to trial. SNC has said it could appeal that decision.
“I’m not a legal expert but in any kind of justice system, I think you want to see some kind of deterrence element show up,” Mr. Vachon said. “And you know, would any company like to go through what SNC-Lavalin has gone through in the last two or three years? I think the answer is no. So I think deterrence has worked.”
Mr. Vachon said he still fails to understand why Canada’s director of public prosecutions decided not to offer SNC-Lavalin a chance to strike a settlement. He said the Trudeau government enacted a deferred prosecution system for corporations last year specifically to deal with situations like the one facing SNC-Lavalin, adding the company has “significant economic impact” across Canada that has to be considered.
SNC-Lavalin revealed in documents filed in the Federal Court of Appeal earlier this month that it was given “a very cursory explanation” by lawyers for the director of public prosecutions of why its bid for a settlement was rejected. The reasons include the nature and gravity of the alleged acts, the degree of involvement of senior officers at SNC-Lavalin and the fact the company did not self-report the conduct that led to the charges, the company said in the filings.
Daniela Pizzuto, a spokesperson for SNC-Lavalin, declined to comment Wednesday.
SNC-Lavalin has said it believes it has a strong defence against the charges and that it will fight them in court. It says it has significantly reformed its business practices and overhauled both its board of directors and management.
SNC-Lavalin warned federal prosecutors in writing last fall that the company could break up and move its corporate headquarters to the United States if it was not invited to negotiate a deal to suspend criminal prosecution. In documents obtained by The Canadian Press and describing one of the company’s so-called Plan B scenarios, SNC-Lavalin would move its Montreal headquarters and corporate offices in Ontario and Quebec to the U.S. within a year, cutting its domestic work force to just 3,500 from 8,717, before eventually winding up its Canadian operations, according to the wire service.
If convicted, SNC-Lavalin could face a ban of up to 10 years from bidding on federal contracts. The allegations have already affected sales opportunities as some clients and bidding partners recoil from the corporation, SNC-Lavalin CEO Neil Bruce has said.
Many Canadians also appear to have given up on the company, Mr. Bruce has said. “Nobody appears to give a crap about whether we fail or not in Canada," he told The Globe in an interview March 20.
Paul Tellier, former CEO of Canadian National Railway Co., and Michael Sabia, CEO of pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, have both come to SNC-Lavalin’s defence in recent weeks.
"Shall we try as Canadians to save a company like this? Yes. Big time,” Mr. Tellier told The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Magazine. "I’m not going to take sides for or against the [Prime Minister’s Office]. But people don’t look at the big picture,” he said.
“It’s important not to lose sight of how much progress has been made, and how much potential remains” for SNC-Lavalin, Mr. Sabia told reporters in February. “We’re investing the savings of eight million Quebeckers in 54,000 good people [who are SNC employees] and we’re proud of it."