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Editorials SNC-Lavalin, bribery charges – and the risk of overreaching sanctions

Diane Finley speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. is at serious risk of being caught in a game of double jeopardy – first being prosecuted in the courts for deeds done abroad, as announced this week, and then facing the possibility of even more severe punishment from an inflexible, draconian federal government policy.

The charges of corruption against the company relate to allegations of bribery in Libya. Other charges, of fraud not against the company but against its former CEO, Pierre Duhaime, laid in 2013, which have not been proved in court, concern the McGill University Health Centre and the dubious Arthur Porter (now languishing in a jail in Panama). If and where there was wrongdoing, it will have to be addressed and accounted for. But a Ministry of Public Works and Government Services policy threatens to go far beyond that.

With the best of intentions, the Harper government announced in 2014 a plan to clean up its contracting practices. Its new "integrity framework" has not been enacted as law, or even as regulations, but the policy threatens to have huge implications for companies wanting to do business with Ottawa. A company that has been found guilty of corruption at home or abroad can no longer even bid for a federal contract for 10 years.

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As a result, foreign firms with foreign convictions, such as Hewlett-Packard, Siemens AG and BAE-Systems, are facing "debarment" from federal Canadian government contracting. Even Transparency International thinks it's a bit much.

SNC-Lavalin is a Canadian company with thousands of employees. It would be tragic if a conviction against the company, or even the threat of it, were to result in what could amount to a death sentence for SNC. It is not clear that Riadh Ben Aissa, the former vice-president who is alleged to have been the most active person in corrupt transactions in Libya and other Arab countries, was part of "the directing mind and will" of SNC-Lavalin. That is the necessary element that the law requires to find that a corporation had a criminal intent comparable to that of a flesh-and-blood human being.

Prosecutors and eventually a judge will look at these matters scrupulously. But leaving aside what's before the courts, Diane Finley, the Minister of Public Works, must fix the unintended consequences of the integrity framework. That framework, offering companies no way to set things right or make amends, doesn't fit.

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