The World Bank has slapped SNC-Lavalin Inc. with a record-setting sanction, barring the engineering firm and 100 of its subsidiaries from bidding on any of the bank's development projects for the next decade, after SNC agreed not to dispute charges that it conspired to bribe several Bangladeshi public officials in an effort to secure a $50-million bridge contract.
The World Bank's announcement about SNC, which was made Wednesday, also expanded the list of countries where the embattled engineering company has been accused of corruption. The bank said it has uncovered evidence that SNC conspired to bribe public officials in Cambodia and that it has passed that information along to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are already probing the company's activities in Libya, Algeria and Bangladesh.
The 10-year prohibition was negotiated between the company and the bank and is the largest debarment that a company has agreed to as part of a settlement since the bank began sanctioning firms that seek to corrupt public officials.
"I will say that while the conduct the company engaged in in Bangladesh was very significant, and quite egregious, we also believe that the company under the new management and leadership is looking forward and does truly intend to become a better, cleaner company," said Stephen Zimmermann, the director of operations for the World Bank's investigative arm, what it calls its Integrity Vice-Presidency.
Because the bank has an agreement with four of the world's other international development banks to uphold each other's sanctions, the ban will effectively shut SNC out of many international development projects, Mr. Zimmermann said. In a statement SNC said that, historically, projects financed by such development banks have accounted for 1 per cent of its revenues.
"Given how little business SNC derives directly from the World Bank, this is probably not an overly impactful announcement," said Yuri Lynk, an analyst with Canaccord Genuity.
A specialized unit of the RCMP's National Division, which handles sensitive and international investigations, has charged two former SNC officials, Ramesh Shah and Mohammed Ismail, in connection with the alleged Bangladeshi bribery conspiracy and violating Canada's foreign corruption law. A preliminary hearing for both men is currently under way, but the details are subject to a court-ordered publication ban.
According to a letter sent to the Bangladeshi government by a World Bank panel of experts, the alleged conspiracy dates back to the spring of 2011. SNC had been vying for a $50-million contract to supervise the construction of what is known as the Padma Bridge, a massive infrastructure project designed to link Bangladesh's southwest with the capital city of Dhaka but has since been put on hold because of the corruption charges. SNC had been second in the running behind a British firm, Halcrow Group Ltd., until Mr. Shah and Kevin Wallace – then an SNC executive, who has since left the company – flew to Dhaka to meet with the then Bangladeshi communications minister, Syed Abdul Hossain.
After the meeting, Mr. Shah jotted down a number of percentages – "4% Min;... 1% secretary" – in a diary, the World Bank has said. The diary entry was later uncovered by the RCMP. (Mr. Wallace has not been charged with any crime.)
Since the World Bank was alerted to the alleged conspiracy it has cancelled its $1.2-billion (U.S.) loan to Bangladesh, stalling the $3-billion project. A panel of anti-corruption experts enlisted by the World Bank has urged the Bangladeshi government to criminally charge Mr. Hossain, the former communications minister, but the government has refused, resulting in a stalemate that means the bridge is unlikely to be built any time soon.
"The good news for the bank in this case … we were able to determine or find out about this conspiracy before the bribes were paid," said Mr. Zimmermann, a former U.S. prosecutor. "In some people's eyes it makes it less egregious because no bribes were actually paid. I don't hold that view. I think it's just as egregious – and just as fortuitous – that we were able to find out about this before the bribes were paid and before the money changed hands."
"Unfortunately, it also led to the death of the bridge – at least for the time being."
Neither the World Bank, nor SNC, would detail what the company is alleged to have done in Cambodia, except to say that SNC has agreed to not contest a charge of corruption as part of its role in a World Bank-financed electric transmission project. That particular project has since been completed, the bank says.
SNC is able to reduce the length of its debarment to eight years if it can demonstrate to the bank that it has introduced rigorous anti-corruption policies and procedures, something that the company says it has done over the past year since hiring its new chief executive, Robert Card, in August.
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly said that SNC admitted it conspired to bribe Bangladeshi officials in an effort to secure a bridge contract, and that it acknowledged corruption as part of its role in a World Bank-financed electric transmission project in Cambodia. In fact, SNC agreed not to dispute those charges. This online version has been corrected.