Cross Country Checkup

Canada 'falling behind' on fighting corruption abroad: Transparency International director

As the SNC-Lavalin affair continues to unravel in Ottawa, the Canadian director of an international anti-corruption watchdog says Canada needs to step up when it comes to addressing corporate bribery around the world.

'Our enforcement level has been exceptionally low,' says James Cohen

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the media in Kanata, Ont., on Friday, Feb. 15. James Cohen, executive director of Transparency International Canada, urges him to let 'Canadians hear specific answers' about the SNC-Lavalin case. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As the complex strands of the SNC-Lavalin case continue to play out, the Canadian head of a global anti-corruption watchdog argues Canadians need to make a commitment to cracking down on white-collar crime, at home and abroad.

"If it's said that corruption greases the wheels of bureaucracy, then apathy and cynicism pave the path for corruption," said James Cohen, executive director of Transparency International Canada.

"There can be citizens holding governments accountable. It takes paying attention; it takes work, but it's not impossible."

Last Tuesday, former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould quit cabinet, less than a week after reports by the Globe and Mail alleged that the PMO pressured her to intervene in the corruption and fraud prosecution of Montreal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, in relation to alleged payments of bribes to Libyan officials.

The prime minister has denied pressuring Wilson-Raybould, while she has declined to comment on the reports, stating she is bound by solicitor-client privilege.

The Prime Minister's Office needs to handle this better in terms of letting Canadians hear specific answers.- James Cohen, Transparency International executive director

The controversy has shone an unusually intense spotlight on Canadian corporate corruption abroad, and in particular, sparked debate on whether a type of plea bargain deal known as a deferred prosecution agreement is a useful tool to combat bribery, or a "get-out-of-jail-free card" for white-collar criminals.  

Transparency International, a Berlin-based organization devoted to combatting corruption worldwide, supported the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements into Canadian law.

Cohen says the decision of whether to offer SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement is for prosecutors to make "in the clear light of day, with no political pressure," and for a judge to approve.

But the controversy draws attention to how Canada is lagging behind other countries when it comes to fighting corruption abroad.

Transparency movement

Cohen has been immersed in what he calls the "transparency movement," a coalition of NGOs tracking the harmful effects of corruption in countries around the world, since his work in international development in countries such as South Sudan, Bosnia, and Ukraine led him to join Transparency International in 2016.

"It became very obvious that corruption was a driver for many conflicts and human rights issues. If we're truly going to address these issues we need to address underlying issues of corruption," he said.

The International Monetary Fund has suggested as much as $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion circulates the globe in bribes annually, resulting in lost tax revenues and sustained poverty in countries desperate for economic growth.

James Cohen is the executive director of Transparency International Canada and has tracked the harmful effects of corruption in countries around the world. (Submitted by James Cohen)

Canada's efforts to combat that corruption began in earnest with the enactment of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act in 1999. The act aims to prevent bribery by Canadian businesses of public officials outside of Canada.

However, in 2011, Canada was criticized by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for its lack of investigators, and weak penalties in the rare event of a conviction.

Cohen says Canada's record on number of anti-bribery prosecutions is a tiny fraction of countries with similar anti-bribery laws, such as the United States or the United Kingdom.

"Canada is one of the countries falling behind ... our enforcement level has been exceptionally low," he said.

SNC-Lavalin is the first high-profile Canadian company to be charged under the corruption legislation, and the company now faces an extended trial over its business dealings in Libya between 2001 and 2011, with allegations of nearly $48 million in bribes and $130 million in fraud.

But SNC-Lavalin's intensive lobbying efforts to have deferred prosecution agreements written into the Criminal Code have lead some to ask if the amendments are a path to let the company off more easily.

Let Wilson-Raybould speak

Cohen suggests deferred prosecutions were long overdue in Canadian law, noting prosecutors in the U.S. and U.K. have had them as a legal option for many years. He believes they're an important tool in weeding out corruption, so long as they aren't viewed by Canadian companies as the cost of doing business.

"It should only really be used for companies who self-report and have found there was a rogue employee who committed corruption," said Cohen.

"This clears up resources for law enforcement to go after those companies who are still thinking that they can get away with corruption in secret."

Prime Minister Trudeau says that he did not pressure then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to seek a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin. So let her speak, says Cohen. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Deferred prosecution need not be considered a mere slap on the corporate wrist, he says, depending on the punishment.

"They can be brutally crippling fines that make the entire industry sit up and pay attention and look at their own compliance programs proactively."

But, if the air is to be cleared in the SNC-Lavalin affair, Canadians deserve to hear from former attorney-general Wilson-Raybould about the nature of her discussions with the Prime Minister's Office, Cohen says.

"The Prime Minister's Office needs to handle this better in terms of letting Canadians hear specific answers, so that we can gain trust in the rule of law or see how to rectify the situation."

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

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