While Montreal company SNC-Lavalin is facing criminal charges that have put it at the centre of a growing political scandal in Ottawa, it is quietly bidding to build a $1.4 billion bridge in British Columbia.
Until more is known about the current allegations, that’s okay with Premier John Horgan.
“SNC-Lavalin is a large company,” Horgan told reporters Thursday. “They put in bids on projects around the world and we’ll look at that closely and if they’re the best bidder and they can meet the requirements of the people of British Columbia, then they will be successful.”
On February 14, B.C. announced that it had pre-qualified three teams to compete to design and build a replacement for the Pattullo Bridge across the Fraser River — a project budgeted at $1.377 billion.
One of those teams was SNC-Lavalin Capital Inc. working with the Canadian wing of a company headquartered in Spain, Acciona Infrastructure Canada Inc.
The other two teams are Fraser Community Connectors led by Kiewit Canada Development Corp. and one that includes Flatiron Constructors Ltd., Dragados Canada Inc. and Carlson Pattullo Joint Venture.
Asked if he was comfortable having a company that’s under a cloud be on the Pattullo replacement shortlist, Horgan said he hadn’t been following events in Ottawa closely.
“I don’t know in excruciating detail where SNC-Lavalin is in the legal process, but if there is anything that would compromise their ability to lawfully undertake work in British Columbia, then it won’t happen, but I can’t answer that today because I don’t know what the state of play is,” he said.
SNC-Lavalin will be treated like any other company in the bidding process and whoever ends up doing the work will need to follow both British Columbian and Canadian law, added Horgan.
“You’ve characterized them as what they are, ‘allegations’, and when they’re proven in court that might change how we would proceed,” he said. “We’re going to be cautious, of course, but I’m not going to eliminate them as a potential successful bidder because of allegations in another jurisdiction.”
SNC-Lavalin has a long history in B.C. Its projects have included the Canada Line, the Sea to Sky Highway, the W. R. Bennett Bridge in Kelowna, the Vancouver International Airport, the Kelowna International Airport and SkyTrain. It has done work for BC Ferries and won the contract to build the Evergreen Line.
The criminal charges SNC-Lavalin is facing have to do with allegations of bribery and corruption in Libya between 2001 and 2011. Reportedly, the bribes included $47.7 million paid to Saadi Gaddafi, the son of Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of Libya who was deposed and killed in 2011. The firm is also charged with defrauding the Libyan government of nearly $130 million.
The company had been seeking a deferred prosecution agreement where they would pay a fine but avoid a criminal trial that could result in a 10-year ban of bidding on federal contracts.
On Feb. 27 former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould testified to a parliamentary committee that she and others on her staff had been subject to inappropriate pressure from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others over the course of months to grant such a deferment.
She said she believed Trudeau had removed her from the attorney general and justice minister position because of their disagreement on the SNC-Lavalin matter.
On Monday the scandal deepened when Jane Philpott — whose posts had included health minister, minister of Indigenous services and president of treasury board — resigned from cabinet saying, “There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.”
Company’s changed, says CEO
Asked for comment, a media contact for SNC-Lavalin provided links to public statements made by the company’s president and CEO Neil Bruce.
“The truth is, the events prior to 2012 that led to the federal charges should have never taken place,” he said in one.
“They did, however, result in fundamental cultural, governance, and leadership changes. The management team at SNC-Lavalin is entirely new, and I apologize to all for the shortcomings during that period. In the years since, we have worked tirelessly to achieve excellence in governance and integrity because we want to regain the confidence of all our stakeholders and employees, and mostly that of all Canadians.”
In another statement he said that people who have committed wrongdoing should be prosecuted but so far only one individual has been charged.
“Innocent stakeholders continue to bear all the brunt of this uncertainty — including all 52,000 current employees who have no responsibility for any past misconduct,” he said.
But the charges related to SNC-Lavalin’s activities in Libya are only the latest cloud to come over the company.
Perhaps the biggest setback was the 10-year suspension announced in 2013 from bidding on World Bank-financed projects and charges against two former senior executives stemming from projects in Bangladesh and Cambodia.
And there were issues at home in Canada too.
As a 2013 SNC-Lavalin financial filing put it, “The former CEO of the Company and a former Executive Vice-President of the Company have been charged by authorities in the Province of Quebec with various fraud offences allegedly in connection with a Company project in the Province of Quebec and the same former Executive Vice-President has been detained by Swiss authorities since April 2012 in connection with potential criminal charges, including fraud-related matters.”
Former CEO Pierre Duhaime pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the case related to the McGill University Hospital and got house arrest of 20 months and 240 hours of community service. He was also ordered to make a $200,000 payment to a victim’s centre.
Another former SNC-Lavalin executive, Riadh Ben Aissa, was sentenced to 51 months in jail after he pleaded guilty to using false documents.
University of Ottawa assistant professor Jennifer Quaid has been quoted saying the company is responsible for the environment within which individuals work and that the track record suggests a wider problem. “This isn’t once that it happened. It’s multiple times, in multiple countries, and not just in the developing world, also in Quebec.”
As the latest scandal tied to SNC-Lavalin swirls in Ottawa, the company is betting some of its future on B.C., hoping for a new project and big payday — assuming it continues to be allowed to compete for the job.