SNC-Lavalin CEO tells anti-corruption meeting the engineering giant has changed its ways

SNC-Lavalin head Robert Card told an anti-corruption conference that the Montreal engineering giant has cleaned up its business practises and shouldn't be left out of bidding for federal contracts.

Robert Card takes his message global as he tries to rehabilitate the Montreal firm's tainted image

President and CEO of SNC-Lavalin Robert Card speaks to a global conference on the Montreal engineering firm's efforts to clean up its business practices in Putrajaya, Malaysia on Thursday. (Shafiq/International Anti-Corruption Conference)

The president and CEO of SNC-Lavalin, Robert Card, said the Montreal engineering giant has learned its lessons, cleaning up the way it does business – and it shouldn't be compelled to pay too big a price for the corruption scandals that have plagued it over the past few years.

"Our position, that we've always maintained, is being accountable as a company is important. However, it's also important to recognize the stakeholders that have already been injured in the process  such as our 40,000 employees and the people who rely on them," said Card in an exclusive, one-on-one interview with CBC News.

Card is a headliner at the International Anti-Corruption Conference organized by the non-governmental organization Transparency International, taking place in Putrajaya, Malaysia this week.

We do believe we have the tools to do any job, anywhere – cleanly,- SNC-Lavalin president and CEO Robert Card

Card's comments come as he tries to rehabilitate the reputation of SNC-Lavalin – one of the world's largest construction, engineering and operations firms.

The company has been embroiled in a series of scandals dating back to 2001, including allegations now before the court in Quebec that former executives funneled $22.5 million in bribes through shell companies to win the contract to build the McGill University superhospital.

Last February, the RCMP laid corruption and bribery charges against SNC-Lavalin over the dealings of former employees and its subsidiaries with the regime of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

If the company is found guilty, it would face a 10-year ban on bidding on federal government contracts.

Card says such a punishment could threaten SNC-Lavalin's survival.

"In an organization like ours, any period of debarment can mean removing you from the business entirely," Card said, adding that would further "victimize" employees already hurt in the wave of past scandals.

Sanctions send strong message

But anti-corruption advocates say sanctions such as a ban on bidding for federal contracts send a strong message that corruption will not be tolerated.

"Whether a 10-year ban is too long or whether is should be 5 years, that's up for discussion. But there has to be some consequences to acts of corruption," said Susan Côté-Freeman, the head of Transparency International's business integrity unit. 

"The key is companies have to work much harder to prevent corruption from happening in the first place."

Card, who took over as president and CEO in 2012, said SNC-Lavalin has done just that.  

"We have made the investment, and we do believe we have the tools to do any job, anywhere – cleanly – and we wouldn't do it otherwise," he said.

It's not surprising SNC-Lavalin's boss is taking that message on the road, Côté-Freeman said, applauding Card's participation in the three-day international conference.

"I think it's not unusual for companies that have had events, corruption events, such as SNC-Lavalin – once they've put better systems in place and worked on revamping their ethics and compliance system – to participate in these public events," she said.

"I think indications are that they have actually applied a lot of resources to changing policies, systems and the culture of the company," Côté-Freeman said.

However, she said, it's too early to tell whether the changes SNC-Lavalin has made are enough to alter the company's business practices in a way that is lasting and successful.


Ryan Hicks is in his final year as a law student at McGill University and is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC. In 2018, he won the Amnesty International Media Award for his reporting from Guatemala about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.