Canadian mediator Cyndy Vanier says Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin still owes her a lot of money for her work in Libya during the civil war in 2011, despite charges and RCMP conclusions that the work was really a plot to smuggle members of the Gadhafi clan to a secret life in Mexico.
"I had a legal contract with SNC, they should honour their contract," Vanier told CBC News in an exclusive interview from the prison in Chetumal, Mexico, where she's been held since her arrest in Mexico City on Nov. 10, 2011.
She and three co-accused face potentially lengthy prison terms if convicted of conspiring to fly Saadi Gadhafi, the son of Libya's former dictator, and his family to Mexico, using forged identification and fake identities. Vanier made her final submission to the court Thursday by videoconference from Chetumal, and it is now up to the judge in Mexico City to examine all the evidence and testimony, perhaps calling back witnesses, before rendering a judgment.
Vanier insists she was hired by SNC-Lavalin controller Stephane Roy, under direction from executive vice-president Riadh Ben Aïssa, during the summer of 2011 for legitimate "fact finding" and to charter aircraft to prepare for "employee reintegration" into Libya.
SNC-Lavalin has since characterized Roy and Ben Aïssa as rogue executives, both of whom resigned a year ago. Ben Aïssa was arrested in Switzerland last April, accused of illegally funnelling about a $160 million in SNC funds directly to Saadi Gadhafi.
"I always believed they were an honourable, reputable company," Vanier said Friday, adding she is owed "a lot of money" by the company.
Leslie Quinton, a spokesperson for SNC-Lavalin, told CBC in an email: "To the best of our knowledge, Ben Aïssa did not act with the approval of anyone else in the organization in his hiring of Ms. Vanier for any purpose. The only evidence we have of a legitimate contract was for the supposed fact-finding visit for the return of employees, which has been paid in full.
"Since this is a legal matter, we cannot say any more."
Vanier would not elaborate on how much she is owed, and was advised by her lawyer not to talk to CBC News. But in a short interview in which she declined to provide detailed comment and refused to be recorded, Vanier explained that she's at "a very delicate point in the court process.
"I just came out of 12 hours in court of final declarations," said the 53-year-old from Mount Forest, Ont. "We have to respect the process here."
Vanier disputes claims in RCMP search warrant
The allegations against Vanier, including those made by the RCMP in a recently unsealed warrant used to search SNC-Lavalin's Montreal headquarters last April, reach far beyond Mexico.
"I have reasonable grounds to believe that the real reason for [Vanier’s 'fact finding' mission to Libya for SNC-Lavalin] was to plan for and facilitate the extraction of S. Gadhafi and his family from Libya to Mexico using false identities," RCMP Cpl. Brenda Makad swore in an affidavit in advance of the April search in Montreal.
Makad had travelled to Mexico weeks before making that statement, and interviewed Vanier about the $1.9 million in fees she was paid by SNC-Lavalin. But ultimately, the RCMP investigator rejected Vanier's version of events, including her explanation that a meeting with Stephane Roy in Mexico City set for Nov. 11, 2011, was to explore possible water purification projects for SNC-Lavalin in Mexico.
Vanier was arrested by Mexican authorites a day before that meeting was to take place. Roy was detained the next day along with three of Vanier's co-accused, but he was released and allowed to return to Canada.
'It's an affidavit about SNC—it wasn’t about me. [A search warrant] has a very low threshold of proof. It's not tested in court and, obviously, it didn't materialize the way they thought.' —Cyndy Vanier
"I have a reasonable basis to believe the true goal of the meeting in Mexico wasn't to discuss water purification projects, but planning for the clandestine movement of S. Gadhafi and his family to Mexico," Makad wrote in her sworn statement, which was filed on April 11, 2012.
Confronted for the first time with the warrant allegations, Cyndy Vanier was resolute.
"It's an affidavit about SNC—it wasn’t about me," Vanier said. A search warrant "has a very low threshold of proof. It's not tested in court and, obviously, it didn't materialize the way they thought.
"A lot has transpired since then," she added. "There’s a much clearer understanding of what was going on now as opposed to back then."
The RCMP warrant also cites emails between Vanier and Roy provided by SNC-Lavalin lawyers, which investigators claim is evidence that the pair was working to fabricate false identification to help move the Gadhafis.
Makad says one email dated August 23, 2011 from Roy to Vanier included a scanned image of Saadi Gadhafi's passport. Days later, Makad says Vanier sent an email to Roy with three Mexican birth certificates attached.
"Also to cover my butt…in the event we have to back track on this…paper trail supports intent," said one email purportedly from Vanier, according to the RCMP affidavit, in which she asked Roy for a signed contract showing that she was being hired for "mediation."
However, Vanier disputes writing the messages cited by the RCMP.
"I've already made it very clear, including through my lawyer in Canada, to news agencies printing this, that we didn't write the emails," she told CBC News. "I deny they exist or that they exist in the way the RCMP has described.
"That's why they say 'allegedly.'"
Insider calls Vanier 'fall guy' after years of Libya profits
SNC-Lavalin employees are watching developments closely, including Vanier's court hearing, charges against SNC-Lavalin executives, and RCMP allegations implicating both Vanier and the company bosses who hired her.
One company insider told CBC News this past week that Vanier and Ben Aïssa, who are both under arrest, are being used as expendable fall guys.
"Cynthia and [Riadh Ben Aïssa] are eating off tin plates," the source told CBC News on condition of anonymity. The source also argued that others from the company—past and present—continue to collect pensions and enjoy the huge profits SNC-Lavalin won from Ben Aïssa's efforts at cozying up to Libya’s former rulers.
"Who used whom?" the source asked.
The same insider is responsible for setting off an internal firestorm in December of 2011 after sending a poison-pen letter imploring SNC-Lavalin's board of directors to help Vanier, and demanding action to stem a string of unproven allegations—notably an unproven claim that hundreds of millions in SNC-Lavalin "commissions" were being funnelled to the Gadhafi regime.
Quinton responded that "under no circumstances would the company tolerate or permit illegal activity of any kind, no matter what the perceived business advantage. Such behaviour is clearly not acceptable and results in serious consequences."
Vanier guarded over specifics, citing legal advice
Vanier would not comment on the specifics of her work for SNC-Lavalin, during an interview with the CBC's Dave Seglins inside the prison where she could remain for months, or years, depending on the judge's verdict.
Asked about her former body guard, Gary Peters, who was ordered deported from Canada last week for his ties to the Gadhafi regime, Vanier said "I can't comment on that. I'm not following Gary Peters' life right now. I'm dealing with my own."
Vanier says she has lost 80 pounds over the last 14 months, as a result of many infections in her open-air prison including dengue fever, as well as an abdominal surgery in October to remove an ovarian cyst and to repair internal injuries she maintains were caused by a police officer elbowing her at the time of her arrest.
The toll has been huge, she says, "physically and emotionally.
"Now I've had a cough for two weeks. I'm starting antibiotics today. It has to be by injections, because my stomach can't handle the pills.
"I've got a fever."
Vanier says she is very grateful to family and friends during her ordeal.
"They have stuck with me through this whole thing with unwavering support, especially my husband," she said.
Her husband, Pierre, has remained in Mexico, living in a hotel in Chetumal two kilometres from the prison where Vanier remains locked up, awaiting word from Mexico's federal court on her fate.