RCMP and Swiss widen SNC payments probe

RCMP and Swiss police are examining a decade's worth of payments to SNC Lavalin "agents" and conducting more interviews with current and past executives, including former chief executive Jacques Lamarre.

Swiss authorities question past chief executive Jacques Lamarre

RCMP and Swiss police have widened their investigation into engineering giant SNC Lavalin, examining a decade's worth of payments to "agents" and conducting more interviews with current and past executives, including former CEO Jacques Lamarre.

SNC chief executive Jacques Lamarre 1996-06, left, was interviewed recently in Switzerland. Triendl, Novak and Babawi have also been questioned. Pierre Duhaime was arrested in Montreal Wednesday. (SNC)

Lamarre, who ran the Montreal-based firm from 1996 to 2009, went to Switzerland in recent months under a legal agreement that allowed him to answer questions from Swiss investigators but guaranteed him safe passage back to Canada, according to sources in Canada and Switzerland contacted by CBC/Radio-Canada and Swiss broadcaster RTS.

It was the same protection given to Sami Bébawi, a former SNC executive in charge of international construction, who flew to Geneva last week for interviews with Swiss authorities.

It was unclear at this point why the two individuals would require safe passage agreements.

CBC/Radio Canada contacted Lamarre's office but questions about his discussions the Swiss were referred back to SNC-Lavalin. The company would not discuss it citing the on-going investigation.

"We continue to cooperate with authorities in various investigations," SNC-Lavalin spokeswoman Leslie Quinton said in an email Thursday. "We … cannot get into any further details."

The two men who succeeded Lamarre and Bébawi, Pierre Duhaime and Riadh Ben Aïssa, have both been arrested.

Main players

Jacques Lamarre was chief executive of SNC Lavalin Group until 2009. He began his engineering career in 1967 with Lavalin and took control of the the company's transportation group after the merger in 1991. Lamarre is an officer of the Order of Canada.

Michael Novak first joined SNC-Lavalin in 1986 and in 2007 he was appointed executive vice-president and chairman of SNC-Lavalin International, which made him responsible for SNC-Lavalin International and Aboriginal Affairs. Novak is married to former Quebec Justice Minister Kathleen Weil.

Sami Bébawi was executive vice president in charge of construction.

Klaus Triendl is a former president of SNC-Lavalin International and executive vice president of SNC Lavalin Group. He joined the company in 1975, but left in 2007. He remains an adviser.

Marie-Josée Bérubé is the vice-president, Administration of SNC-Lavalin International, in charge of agent agreements.

Ronald Denom joined SNC-Lavalin in 1978 and over the last three decades, has worked on the firm's international construction projects. In 2006, he was appointed president of SNC-Lavalin International.

Tony Rosato is a senior vice president at SNC Lavalin Group responsible for strategy planning and development.

Duhaime was arrested by Quebec's Anti-Corruption unit early Wednesday at his home in Montreal and charged with fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud and use of false documents stemming from allegations surrounding the $2.3 billion McGill University Health Centre.

Ben Aïssa is also wanted in connection with the hospital project, but he has been in a Swiss jail since April awaiting trial on charges of fraud, money laundering and corrupting a public official tied to projects in North Africa.

The various investigations involve $195 million in payments by SNC that went to "commercial agents" in both Canada and North Africa. The revelations have some questioning what kind of oversight structure existed at the troubled company.

"Let's face it — SNC has done a great deal of work in environments that are known for corruption and unethical business practices," said Rick Powers, senior lecturer on business law and ethics at Rotman School of Business in Toronto.

"[The SNC board] had to be asking these questions. And if they were, obviously they accepted the answers from management, or perhaps they didn't ask the questions and dig deep enough.

"That's the big issue for me from a governance point of view."

The Swiss police investigation is focused on $139 million of payments that went through the divisions known as SNC-Lavalin International, monies paid to two companies registered in the British Virgin Islands which had bank accounts in Switzerland, a joint investigation by CBC/Radio-Canada and RTS has revealed.

Police have interviewed other executives at SNC International including Michael Novak, its chairman, who was questioned by Swiss authorities in April when the RCMP searched SNC's Montreal headquarters. Police also spoke to Novak's predecessor, Klaus Triendl, along with Marie-Josée Bérubé, Ron Denom and Anthony Rosato.

Swiss investigators also hope to question Stephane Roy, a vice president/controller who worked closely with Ben Aïssa, and was forced to resign with him in February.

Interviewing company personnel does not imply any guilt, but authorities are trying to determine who had signing authority for such large movements of money.

Please send tips to john.nicol@cbc.ca and dave.seglins@cbc.ca

With files from Jeremy McDonald and Brigitte Noël