SNC-Lavalin bridge contract linked to $1.5M in suspected kickbacks

Radio-Canada’s investigative program Enquête has uncovered a money trail suggesting that almost $1.5 million in suspected kickbacks ended up in Swiss bank accounts of a former Federal Bridge Corporation boss, shortly after SNC-Lavalin was awarded a $127-million contract in 2000 to refurbish Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge.

Swiss 'Zorro' account opened just after Jacques Cartier Bridge contract awarded

Suspected kickbacks in bridge contract

10 years ago
Duration 2:06
Radio-Canada's Enquête has uncovered a money trail connecting a Swiss account to a former Federal Bridge Corporation executive

Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête has uncovered a money trail suggesting that almost $1.5 million in suspected kickbacks ended up in Swiss bank accounts of a former Federal Bridge Corporation boss, shortly after SNC-Lavalin was awarded a $127-million contract in 2000 to refurbish Montreal's Jacques Cartier Bridge.

Twenty days after the Federal Bridge Corporation, a Crown corporation, awarded the contract to SNC-Lavalin, Michel Fournier, the former head of FBC, opened a bank account in Zurich and gave it the code name "Zorro." In January 2002, as work began, Promotag SARL. — a commercial agent used frequently by SNC — began making deposits into accounts controlled by Fournier that would total $1,448,083.44.

When an Enquête team visited Fournier's Victoria home two weeks ago, Fournier denied having a Swiss bank account or ever receiving money from SNC-Lavalin or any of its agents. This week he phoned Enquête to say he had opened a Swiss account for a family member, but he had no knowledge of the debits or deposits on that account. 

CBC News has learned that the RCMP is investigating the suspected kickbacks at the Federal Bridge Corporation.​

What we see is highly suspicious…It looks more like a Hollywood movie than anything else.- Economic crime expert Messaoud Abda

Swiss authorities have been tracking bank accounts and interviewing past executives of SNC as part of their probe of construction executive vice-president Riadh Ben Aïssa, who was arrested in Switzerland in April 2012 on suspicion of fraud, money laundering and corruption. That has led to a much larger international investigation of the Montreal-based engineering giant.

A $127-million contract was awarded to SNC-Lavalin in 2000 to refurbish Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)
​Last November, Swiss authorities interviewed now-retired executive vice-president Michael Novak, who was at times head of SNC International and involved in designing agreements with commercial agents. Investigators asked him if he knew whether SNC-Lavalin paid approximately $4 million to Fournier. Novak's response: "I did not know."

Radio-Canada/CBC has so far found no explanation for the $2.5-million discrepancy between the $4 million that police suggest Fournier was paid, and the $1.5 million that is detailed in the Swiss bank accounts of Fournier. 

Neither SNC-Lavalin nor the Federal Bridge Corporation has offered any comment. 

'Zorro' and a second bank

Documents show that on Nov. 1, 2000, Fournier and his wife Judith opened an account with the Tempus Bank in Zurich, using their Canadian passports as identification and to verify their signatures.

Fournier was close to Jean Chrétien

Michel Fournier was appointed head of the newly formed Federal Bridge Corporation in 1998 by then prime minister Jean Chrétien.

Like Chretien, Fournier was born in Shawinigan, Que., 62 years ago this month, and he served as Chrétien's chief of staff in Chrétien's first year as party leader in 1990-91.

A notary by profession, Fournier set up a home with his wife Judith, a travel agent, in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, a town about 50 km southeast of Montreal. He was director general of the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party from 1992 until January of 1994, and received the FBC appointment four years later.

In November of 2000, in the midst of his career as president and chief executive officer of the FBC, he set up a bank account in Switzerland by indicating he was a "consultant."

At the FBC, Fournier was known as "extremely effective," said his former colleague Clément Côté.

 "When we started talking about the new apron for the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, we talked about a four-year project," Côté told Radio-Canada reporters. "At a meeting, Mr. Fournier told us to get it done in two years. Everyone was laughing at him, and he said, 'Laugh all you want, but return to your desk and only come back when you have a two-year project.'

"And we did it in two years less a month and we did it within costs."

Fournier was replaced as head of the FBC in March 2007, and that year he bought a home in Victoria. He sold his house in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in 2008 to retire out west. 

"My sister-in-law lived in France for years with a partner who was very rich," Fournier told Enquête reporter Anne Panasuk."When the relationship was finished, she got a sum of money. Then she started another relationship with someone in Switzerland who was rich. She didn't want that person to know about the money from her ex."

Fournier said he came to Switzerland to help and opened an account following her instructions.

"We didn't receive any documents from the bank," Fournier continued. "My sister-in-law looked after everything. We didn't touch anything in the account."Fournier said he came to Switzerland to help and opened an account following her instructions.

In December 2002, Fournier transferred $1,023,901.50 from the Zorro account to another account he had opened a month before with Pasche Bank, also in Switzerland. To that point he had received $1,155,758.51 from Promotag. At the new bank, Fournier received four more payments from Promotag totalling $292,324.93. At the time, Promotag was doing work for SNC-Lavalin involving projects in Algeria and Libya.

When pressed on why his sister-in-law would be receiving payments from Promotag, Fournier told Enquête: "This is the first I have heard of it, that Promotag.… I didn't even know Promotag until you told me. I was in shock when you got me at the house the other day.… To have an accusation that I did something like that."

Fournier flatly rejects that he was involved in any kickback scheme with SNC-Lavalin.

"I do not know what happened elsewhere, but the file with us has been very clear, very clean," Fournier told Enquête. SNC-Lavalin was "the lowest bidder and they had the best technical envelope. Explain to me why these people were stupid to the point of saying we will give you such a sum?"

Radio-Canada/CBC asked University of Montreal professor Messaoud Abda, an expert in economic crime, to review the case. 

"What we see is highly suspicious," Abda told CBC News. "An indicator that this person was hiding some kind of money, specifically that if the story of the relatives and the family are true, why are we able to retrace the commercial agent payments to that Swiss account?

"It looks more like a Hollywood movie than anything else."

In 2009, Fournier moved the money into an account controlled by Flonast International Corp, an offshore company he created in the British Virgin Islands. Fournier initially denied any knowledge of Flonast, but he later admitted on the phone he had set up the company as a trust.  


SNC-Lavalin in turmoil

"We have no information to share relative to your questions," wrote SNC-Lavalin spokeswoman Lilly Nguyen in response to Radio-Canada/CBC. The engineering giant has been under criminal investigation in Canada and abroad, leading to the arrest and charges of a number of former executives on allegations ranging from bribery, money laundering and corruption.  

Engineering giant SNC-Lavalin has been under criminal investigation in Canada and abroad, leading to the arrests and charges of a number of former executives.
Jacques Lamarre, the CEO of SNC-Lavalin in 2000, told CBC News the company used agents, who were paid between four and five per cent, to help secure contracts and to make sure construction went smoothly. But, he said, there was a system of checks and balances in place to prevent corruption of agent agreements. 

"We had a process by which we wanted all of them to be done in a very strict and legal manner," Lamarre told CBC. "And we were very severe on that.  

"I am not of the belief that corruption could help you succeed in life."

Promotag was frequently used by SNC-Lavalin to do work in Russia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Algeria, Luxembourg, Chad, Guinea, Kenya and Mauritania. It was run by a Pierre Nehme, who could not be reached in Lebanon. 

Asked about the payments to Fournier, Lamarre told CBC: "I have no knowledge. Even this Fournier, this is a name, I cannot say it doesn't ring a bell to me. I never met the guy, I never spoke with that guy. I never seen him."

As for someone at SNC-Lavalin making payments under his watch, he said: "Why would an employee make things illegal? To take those kind of risks, for a company that doesn't belong to you, who would be doing that?"

For tips on this and other stories, contact John Nicol and Dave Seglins.

With files from Anne Panasuk and Emmanuel Marchand