The people who ran the SNC-Lavalin engineering firm in the years when it was massively bribing the family of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi have not yet explained why they did that. If the company is not prosecuted for bribery, some other means should be found to cast light on the matter.
Canada’s director of public prosecutions wanted to prosecute the firm. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted to shelter the company from prosecution by means of a deferred prosecution agreement. A criminal prosecution may be difficult: Libya has been in turmoil since Gadhafi’s overthrow in 2011; SNC has been in turmoil since a management shakeup in 2013. But even if there is no prosecution, the public still needs to know how a leading Canadian company became a top enabler of the Gadhafi dictatorship.
Bribery of public officials is one of the evils that keeps poor countries poor. Despite Libya’s enormous oil resources, the country remained underdeveloped through the Gadhafi years, its people poorly educated and powerless, because the ruling clique pocketed the petroleum-industry proceeds — as the rulers of other ill-governed oil producing countries have also done.
SNC-Lavalin was an important channel for recycling petro-wealth into the hands of the Gadhafi family and keeping Libya in its wretched state. Canada needs to find a way to cease helping dictators rob their people. Criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin could be one way of doing that, but another, more efficient way might also be found.
Riadh Ben Aissa, when he was head of SNC’s global construction arm, lavished money and gifts on Saadi Gadhafi, the dictator’s son, and won for the firm a long string of rich construction contracts for pipelines, a prison, aqueducts and an airport. Arrested in Switzerland, he pleaded guilty to bribery and served more than two years in a Swiss prison. CBC News has been piecing together scraps of information that emerged in the Swiss criminal case, Canadian civil lawsuits and SNC company documents.
Canadian oil executive Gwyn Morgan, who was chairman of the SNC board during those years, contends that he and the board had no idea what Mr. Ben Aissa was up to. They permitted him to spend the company’s money and they accepted the lucrative contracts he won for the company, but they never knew he was bribing the Gadhafi family.
They paid for Saadi Gadhafi’s hotel bills, his escort services and limousine services during a 2008 tour of Canadian cities. They paid for the yacht he wanted. Yet they had no idea any bribery was going on? Some of this information came to light in the course of a civil lawsuit between SNC and former employees. Other details attracted the attention of SNC’s external auditors.
Evidence in the employees’ lawsuit suggested the board was surprised to learn that $10 million in cash was being kept in a safe in the SNC office in Libya. The board thought that was too much cash and ordered the Libya office to hold no more than $1 million in cash. A more inquisitive board might have asked what need the office had for either $1 million or $10 million in cash.
The Quebec government’s Charbonneau Commission, created in 2011 to probe construction industry corruption, discovered many cases of corruption in the province’s public works projects but never touched the Libya problem. A fresh inquiry along the same lines might find some of the answers the public needs.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.