Quebec's police task force on corruption is probing how a billion-dollar contract for a Montreal mega-hospital was awarded to a consortium led by Montreal engineering giant SNC Lavalin Group Inc.
The police raids conducted at McGill University Health Centre headquarters Tuesday morning threaten to tarnish one of Canada's landmark private-sector bids to build public infrastructure, while also enhancing the climate of suspicion surrounding Quebec's construction industry. The spotlight has already prompted the province to launch a corruption inquiry and contributed to this month's ouster of Jean Charest's Liberal government.
The police probe further suggests that SNC Lavalin, lately under scrutiny for its dealings overseas, could be facing heightened attention at home. Up until six months ago, the hospital project had been overseen by Riadh Ben Aissa, the former head of SNC's construction division, and the central figure in an ongoing scandal.
In April, Mr. Ben Aissa was jailed in Switzerland, without charge, on allegations that he was involved in corrupt payments to public officials in North African countries where SNC has done business. As of early September, he was still incarcerated.
Investigators with Quebec's Unité permanente anticorruption squad arrived at the health centre's headquarters Tuesday morning, armed with a search warrant and questions relating to the Glen Campus, a sprawling facility that when completed in 2014 is to include two hospitals, a cancer centre as well as a research centre.
At the health-centre headquarters Tuesday, investigators seized documents and interviewed several staff members, said Anne-Frédérick Laurence, a spokeswoman for the police anti-corruption squad. She declined to say precisely what the investigators were looking for, but the health centre said in a statement that the officers were seeking information related to the awarding of the Glen Campus contract.
One of SNC's original subcontractors in the project was a company controlled by construction magnate Antonio (Tony) Accurso – a controversial figure who is facing fraud and corruption charges.
Yet it is not known whether the probe is looking at any particular individuals or companies. It has been two years since the SNC-led consortium won the McGill University Health Centre contract against a Spanish-led competitor. "Although we have not been contacted specifically about [Tuesday's] events, this matter does concern us and we will co-operate fully with any investigations by authorities," SNC said in a statement issued Tuesday.
The hospital deal was put together under the watch of the previous chief executive of the health centre, who left his own job under a cloud late last year.
At the time, Arthur Porter had been appointed chair of the federal government's security-intelligence watchdog agency, when his African business dealings with an arms dealer were revealed. Dr. Porter stepped down from both jobs but remains the managing director of a cancer-care centre in the Bahamas, a facility that said Tuesday that he was travelling in either Europe or Africa.
Earlier, Dr. Porter had given a speech saying the new hospital campus was one of his greatest legacies.
"On April 1, 2010, six years to the day that I arrived in Montreal, we broke ground on the Glen Campus and whilst one of my goals had been realized, it begged the question … Will the health-care-delivery system justify the enormous capital expense that taxpayers have entrusted to us?"
During the groundbreaking, he was photographed next to SNC Lavalin's Mr. Ben Aissa, who had also viewed the McGill University Health Centre project as one of his signature accomplishments, once saying it carried the "hope and pride" for the entire province of Quebec.
Under the terms of the winning SNC Lavilin-led bid, the consortium – which also involved a British infrastructure investment group, Innisfree Ltd. – agreed to build and finance the facility, and then lease the grounds to the government for 30 years.
The Quebec government has earmarked $2.35-billion for an effort to reconstruct Montreal hospitals, the lion's share going to the McGill University Health Centre campus.
Quebec's anti-corruption unit has put several high-profile figures in its crosshairs since being established last year. It has arrested construction magnates such as Mr. Accurso and Paolo Catania, as well as Frank Zampino, a former city councillor who was the right-hand man of Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay.
- With a report from Paul Waldie