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The Champlain Bridge project, estimated to cost $3-billion to $5-billion, could add up to $1.5-billion to SNC’s backlog.Alexis Fortin Robitaille/The Canadian Press

A consortium led by Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. has won a prominent contract to build and manage Montreal's Champlain Bridge replacement, a symbolic and reputational victory as the company tries to rebound from a damaging ethics scandal that first came to light in 2012.

The development came hours after the company said it is shaking up its executive ranks as it grapples with federal corruption charges and trouble with its money-losing infrastructure business.

"If right now the federal government believes that they can give one of the highest profile projects in Canada to a company that's being investigated by the RCMP, it sends the right message that they're not stepping away from SNC, which was the biggest fear," said Dundee Capital Markets analyst Maxim Sytchev.

SNC stock rose 3 per cent Wednesday to $42.89 in Toronto trading. Federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel made the bridge announcement after markets closed.

SNC was charged Feb.19 with corruption and fraud over alleged criminal acts that occurred between 2001 and 2011 while it did business in Libya. The company maintains the acts were committed by former employees who've since left the company and that the corporation itself should never have been charged.

The charges have ignited fears over SNC's future. Chief executive officer Robert Card has said in October that even charging the company would damage its reputation to the extent that all of its government business could be at risk.

Under federal government procurement rules, any company convicted of an offence, including bribery of a foreign public official, faces a 10-year ban on bidding on federal government contracts. The ban would also apply if a company pleads guilty and gains a conditional or absolute discharge.

Mr. Sytchev said investors had assumed there was no way that the Champlain public-private partnership project would go to SNC because it will be financed by the federal government and the company faces charges. Now, Ottawa has shown that it is sensitive to its place as Canada's largest engineering and construction firm.

"This sends a very strong signal that the debarment possibility is lessening," he said. "[There was] a huge amount of fear that federal work would just bypass the company."

While the Champlain award does not fully assuage legal fears, it is a strong vote of confidence in SNC's ability to secure government work, Mr. Sytchev said. He estimated work from the $3-billion to $5-billion project would add as much as $1.5-billion to SNC's backlog. The Infrastructure Canada news release stated that the winning consortium met the Public Works and Government Services Canada's integrity framework.

Still, the decision places Ottawa in a potentially awkward position if SNC is found guilty in a court of law. Federal rules allow the government to cancel an existing contract if a conviction occurs after it was awarded. In this case, however, bridge construction will likely be well under way by the time the case goes to trial. And, regardless, the SNC consortium is also in charge of bridge operations afterward.

In a news conference late Wednesday, federal ministers called that scenario "hypothetical." Mr. Lebel told reporters that SNC "met all of our criteria. If you're ready to pass judgment on what will happen in the future, fine. I won't."

SNC's consortium partners in the project include ACS Infrastructure Canada and Hochtief PPP Solutions North America. Construction is expected to start this summer with the bridge being open to traffic by the end of 2018.

Earlier Wednesday, SNC announced a series of executive changes that include the promotion of Neil Bruce to a newly created position of chief operating officer. Mr. Bruce joined SNC in January, 2013, to steer the company's resources unit and already oversaw much of its profit-making as head of oil and gas as well as mining, environment and water practices.

The appointment leaves Mr. Card with more time to deal with the criminal charges. On an earnings call March 5, the CEO vowed to keep battling to win a settlement deal, such as those available to companies in the United States, saying achieving a different outcome for SNC is his "day and night focus."

As part of the shakeup, Mr. Card is also replacing another recent recruit – Hisham Mahmoud – as head of SNC's infrastructure business, after less than two years on the job. Mr. Mahmoud came to SNC in early 2014 with responsibility for overseeing all global infrastructure and related businesses, including transportation and operations maintenance. At the time, he was lauded for his experience in "significant value creation" and corporate expansion.

But the unit is losing money. And new contract wins have not come easily. SNC lost a bid for Montreal's new Turcot freeway interchange reconstruction in December. Mr. Mahmoud will leave SNC next month, with Christian Jacqui, executive vice-president of global operations.

"They didn't think infrastructure would be so poor for this long period of time," said National Bank Financial analyst Leon Aghazarian, adding that the management changes won't change the fundamentals of the business or earnings expectations.

SNC's general counsel, Réjean Goulet, is also retiring after nearly 30 years at the company but he'll continue to advise SNC on specific litigation issues including the federal charges.