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The offices of SNC-Lavalin in Montreal.


SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. is offering immunity to employees who report corruption in a new whistleblowing program the embattled Montreal firm describes as a first in Canadian corporate history.

Employees will have three months, between June 3 and Aug. 31, to confess their knowledge of bribes and frauds or other wrongdoing. In exchange, SNC promises not to fire the employees, nor sue them for damages.

The engineering giant is mired in a series of financial scandals that span the globe, and wants to find any remaining skeletons in its closet.

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"We want to get to the bottom of this," Andreas Pohlmann, SNC's new chief compliance officer, said in a phone interview from Paris on Monday. "We encourage our employees to come forward, even if they themselves have been involved in wrongdoing."

Not all of SNC's employees will be offered amnesty under the new company-wide program, however. Executives in SNC's office of the president won't be eligible "because they have a fiduciary duty towards their company," Mr. Pohlmann explained.

Nor will employees who have profited directly from corruption or collusion-like practices, the compliance officer added.

But others would be pardoned in what is akin to a rehabilitation program. "Any employee who was involved in wrongdoing and acted under the instructions of his manager would be entitled to amnesty," Mr. Pohlmann said. They would remain SNC employees, although they might be asked to undergo training or be moved into another position or office. "This will be a case-by-case decision," he added.

However, those employees would not be protected from criminal indictments. "But in my experience, public prosecutors consider that [volunteering of information] favourably," the compliance officer said.

SNC's amnesty program appears to go beyond the typical whistleblower protections now standard at many companies, which rarely if ever pledge amnesty for wrongful actions, said Milos Barutciski, a lawyer with Bennett Jones LLP who advises companies on anti-corruption laws.

Similar to the Competition Bureau's policy on cartels, which promises leniency to the first member of a price-fixing ring who comes clean, employees may be prompted to come forward if they fear others with knowledge of the problem might do so. "There are very few of these things where only one person is in the know. What they have done is create an incentive for everybody to go in," Mr. Barutciski.

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"It's actually a very clever way of dealing with a systemic issue," he said.

Mr. Pohlmann, a German lawyer who joined SNC-Lavalin in February, implemented a similar whistleblowing program at Siemens AG. His former employer also faced an unprecedented crisis in 2007, when its CEO and chairman were forced out after prosecutors uncovered that millions had been paid in bribes to secure contracts in Argentina, Italy, Nigeria and elsewhere. The scandal cost the industrial conglomerate over €2-billion ($2.7-billion) in fines, taxes, and advisory costs.

Over 100 whistleblowers were granted immunity at Siemens, but Mr. Pohlmann doesn't expect there will be as many SNC informants, given that the engineering firm employs 34,000 people, less than one-tenth the count at Siemens, whose work force numbers close to 370,000.

"There were no big surprises [at Siemens], but the information we obtained allowed us to take appropriate remedial action," Mr. Pohlmann said. Likewise, the chief compliance officer does not expect to unearth entirely new affairs after SNC's commercial practices have come under fire in Bangladesh, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and even in the company's hometown of Montreal.

SNC's former president Pierre Duhaime and the former head of the construction division, Riadh Ben Aissa, face accusations of fraud, conspiracy and paying bribes in relation to the construction of the McGill University Health Centre's new superhospital, a $1.3-billion contract. While Mr. Duhaime awaits his trial in Canada, Mr. Ben Aissa is being detained by Swiss authorities who are prosecuting the former SNC executive for allegedly using $130-million of the company's money to pay bribes in North Africa, and skimming the engineering firm in the process.

Pierre Lacroix, a financial analyst at Desjardins Securities, doesn't expect that SNC's amnesty program will uncover more nasty surprises. "This program is in line with all the other measures that SNC has taken so far to clean up its act, and for analysts and investors, this type of action is comforting," he said.

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Canada's standing on the international stage got a boost Monday, because of the RCMP's recent crackdown on bribery cases – including the hunt for alleged corruption at SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released an updated report card on Canada's anti-bribery campaign, and credited Canada for charging individuals at SNC-Lavalin, as well as at a high-tech company.

Canada was also commended for proposed changes to the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, addressing a number of the OECD's previous criticisms.

"Canada has continued the enforcement momentum," the report said, noting wins in the Niko Resources Ltd. and Griffiths Energy International Inc. court cases.

Further, charges against Ramesh Shah and Mohammad Ismail, two former SNC employees, as well as against Nazir Karigar of Cryptometrics, also brought praise in the report. Those cases have not been concluded.

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However, Canada, which has 35 foreign bribery investigations under way, must still beef up its performance, the OECD said. "Progress is ongoing in certain areas, in which, however, the [working group on bribery's] recommendations have not yet been fully met."

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