A former executive with SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. warned the Canadian engineering giant about unethical conduct by Riadh Ben Aissa more than a dozen years before the vice-president became the focal point of a sprawling police investigation, two class-action lawsuits and a precipitous drop in the company's share price.
An investigation by The Globe and Mail's Report on Business Magazine, to be published on Friday, reveals that long before Mr. Ben Aissa became the central figure in SNC's continuing foreign bribery scandal, his business practices were called into question by his former superior, Rod Scriban.
Mr. Scriban, a former SNC senior vice-president who oversaw all of the company's foreign representatives from 1994 to 1997, said that when he went to the company's legal department with concerns about a side commission deal that had the potential to enrich Mr. Ben Aissa's Saudi Arabian in-laws, he was told to "lay off" Mr. Ben Aissa's case.
Mr. Scriban has also detailed how, within SNC-Lavalin's Montreal headquarters, Mr. Ben Aissa's work with the family of the late Colonel Moammar Gadhafi was kept secret. As the head of SNC-Lavalin International, Mr. Scriban had access to every single country file – except for the records detailing Mr. Ben Aissa's work in Libya. "This file is so risky that people feel like hiding it," Mr. Scriban said he recalled thinking at the time.
That once-secret work exploded into public view in the spring of 2011 when armed rebels, aided by NATO fighter jets, wrested control of the North African nation, deposed Col. Gadhafi and dispensed documents, once confidential under the dictator, across the world for all to see.
Relying on those once-secret documents, as well as interviews with former SNC executives and engineers, the magazine report details how Mr. Ben Aissa and SNC targeted Col. Gadhafi's third-born son Saadi for lucrative contracts – work that, at its peak, accounted for 7 per cent of the engineering company's revenues. The paper trail, as well as insider interviews, outline how SNC helped the dictator's son achieve his aspirations of being recognized as the commander of a military engineering unit. This despite a résumé that consisted mostly of delusional and grandiose pursuits, such as a professional soccer career in Italy and a brief stint as a Hollywood producer.
As of early September, Mr. Ben Aissa was in a Swiss jail, where he has been held, without charge, since April. He parted ways with SNC in early 2012 after forensic auditors discovered that he had orchestrated two payments – totalling about $56-million – to unidentified foreign "agents" hired by the company for negotiating contracts. That revelation also led to the resignation of the company's then chief executive, Pierre Duhaime, in March.
The company declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations, but in the past a spokeswoman has said SNC did not believe Mr. Ben Aissa's Saudi arrangement did not contravene any company policies at the time.
Swiss prosecutors, as well as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's anti-corruption unit, have launched probes of the company's foreign operations.