A U.S. ambassador called him "shadowy." The North African press has referred to him as "the bank vault" for Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's son. Libyan rebels have posted YouTube clips declaring that he's wanted "dead or alive."
But before the revolution that toppled Libya's dictatorship, Abdulrahman Karfakh was an important business partner for SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and his role as an agent and a player in SNC projects in the country raises deeper questions about who the firm aligned itself with in order to land hundreds of millions of dollars in business there.
SNC's reliance on such "agents" – locals who connect foreign firms with key decision-makers – is central to the unfolding scandal that has shaken Canada's largest engineering company, a corporate crisis that cost chief executive officer Pierre Duhaime his job and prompted the recent arrest of Riadh Ben Aissa, a former senior executive, in Switzerland.
In March, the company released a redacted summary of an internal investigation that alleged Mr. Ben Aissa orchestrated improper payments, totalling more than $56-million, to foreign agents. SNC says it has no idea where the money ultimately ended up. Ian Bourne, the interim CEO, told shareholders Thursday that he expects police will uncover more improprieties as they dig into what really happened at the Montreal-based firm: "It's just the reality of these police investigations mean that they are going to find some other stuff," he said.
If Mr. Bourne believes that, perhaps it's because not even SNC's upper management knows all of the people who had their hands in the company's business in North Africa. When asked about Mr. Karfakh, an SNC spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement: "I have not been able to track down this person."
But documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that both the company and Mr. Ben Aissa forged close ties to Mr. Karfakh, who had a countrywide reputation as a "facilitator" for foreign firms because of his close relationship with Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the late dictator's second-oldest son.
Much of the scrutiny on the firm's links to the Gadhafi regime has focused on the involvement of Saadi Gadhafi – an international playboy and Mr. Gadhafi's third-born son – in an SNC joint venture. But Mr. Karfakh's role with the firm shows that SNC's connections to the Gadhafi clan went deeper, and that the firm also tied itself to Saif, a London School of Economics alumnus who is currently sitting in a Libyan jail cell.
Mr. Karfakh served as a director on the board of a joint venture between SNC and the Gadhafi regime, a company known as the Executing Agency, that was building a prison and other projects for the regime before it was upended by the revolution. In addition to Mr. Karfakh, the board included three SNC executives, including Mr. Ben Aissa, Charles Azar and André Béland, as well as Saadi Gadhafi.
Mr. Karfakh is described in meeting minutes as having a "wealth of experience in the infrastructure sector." But the U.S. foreign service took a more askance view of the 43-year-old's role in Libyan business. In three cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats outlined accusations that Mr. Karfakh served as a tollbooth for Saif Gadhafi, allegedly collecting corrupt payments from the foreign firms that sought a footprint in oil-rich Libya.
"Saif [Gadhafi] through Karfakh, has reportedly amassed a sizable personal fortune, partly because he has, since the lifting of sanctions, largely monopolized the lucrative niche market in facilitating the entry of foreign companies into Libya," Chris Stevens, the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Tripoli at the time, wrote in a May, 2008, cable.
Mr. Karfakh headed up Libya's National Engineering Services and Supply Co. (NESSCO), an organization that the U.S. State Department described as a holding company for Saif Gadhafi. NESSCO's primary purpose, the cables allege, was to open doors for Western companies seeking to do business with the regime – the role commonly ascribed to agents.
Although the use of foreign agents is common for many multinational firms, with some firms going so far as to train agents in anti-bribery compliance, there is enormous potential for such players to corrupt leaders and public officials in return for contracts.
The relationship between Mr. Karfakh, NESSCO and Saif Gadhafi was so intertwined, the arrangement represented Saif Gadhafi's "primary source of revenue and the principal means by which he finances his many activities," Gene Cretz, the former U.S. Ambassador to Libya, wrote in March, 2009.
SNC declined to comment on its relationship with Mr. Karfakh, how much he was paid and how he ended up serving on the board of the joint venture. No evidence has emerged that he funnelled SNC payments to Saif Gadhafi. It is illegal for Canadian firms to pay bribes to foreign leaders under Canada's Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, which was passed in 1999.
Mr. Karfakh and Saif Gadhafi's relationship went beyond alleged kickbacks, with the former often identified as the latter's adviser and friend. The two men are both listed as the principals behind a number of the Gadhafi family's charities headquartered in Geneva.
The Swiss prosecutors who arrested Mr. Ben Aissa have declined to comment about whether the charities, or even the Gadhafis, are part of their probe. "Due to secrecy obligations that we have to respect, we are currently unable to provide you with more detailed information on the pending procedures," said spokeswoman Jeannette Balmer.
As for Mr. Karfakh's current status, his whereabouts are unknown. Libyan rebels have released a YouTube video, set to upbeat Arabic pop music, of his face superimposed over bars of gold and demanding his return to Libya to face justice.
Despite his close ties to Saif Gadhafi, it is not the first time Mr. Karfakh has been sought by the Libyan government. In a bizarre episode that highlighted the fractious relations of the Gadhafi clan, he was arrested in 2008 in Libya on corruption charges at the behest of Muatassim Gadhafi, Saif's younger brother and rival. According to Ambassador Cretz's WikiLeaks cable, Mr. Karfakh was only released after Saif Gadhafi pleaded with his late father, explaining to Col. Gadhafi that "if he insisted on keeping Karfakh in prison, he might as well jail him (Saif al-Islam), too."
With files from Catherine McLean