Fraud, Corruption, and the Upcoming Federal Election: A Crash Course on the SNC Lavalin Affair

The past few weeks have been insanely eventful on the political scene. In the US, the Americans are dealing with a president who is a white supremacist, a misogynist, and a fraudster seeking to keep the poor fighting each other so he and his fellow billionaires can enrich themselves with the very institutions established to protect the people. We Canadians would love to point and laugh, but unfortunately, we have a scandal of our own to deal with.

The buzzword up here is actually a name: SNC Lavalin. This article will give a crash course on what is going on and what it means.

Founded in 1911, SNC Lavalin is one of the leading engineering and construction firms in Canada, handling everything from infrastructure to clean energy projects. Though they operate internationally, their head office is in Montreal and they are a major employer in Quebec and thus highly regarded in the province.

Since 2015 SNC Lavalin has been in hot water with prosecutors and the RCMP. This is due, in part, to their dealings in Libya from 2001 to 2011, where they are alleged to have paid out $48 million in bribes to public officials in the country in an attempt to influence the government. The RCMP’s investigation also alleges that the company defrauded Libyan businesses of $130 million, actions in violation of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act which criminalizes giving loans or bribes to a foreign public official “in order to obtain or retain an advantage in the course of business.”

In addition to the charges related to the SNC Lavalin’s activities in Libya, the company is also facing charges for a bribery scheme involving a $127 million contract to fix the Jacques Cartier bridge. In 2017, the former head of Canada’s Federal Bridge Corporation pleaded guilty to accepting $2.3 million in bribes from SNC Lavalin in relation to the contract.

The company is thus facing charges of corruption and fraud which, if convicted, could result in SNC Lavalin being barred from bidding on federal contracts for ten years. SNC Lavalin has maintained that they will cooperate with authorities but claim that the people involved are third parties or are no longer with the company.
In February 2019, prosecutors were ready to start bringing charges against SNC Lavalin.

SNC Lavalin in turn was seeking to avoid criminal charges via the new Deferred Prosecution Law passed in June 2018. Under this law, corporations can avoid criminal prosecution with a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) in which they must cooperate with the Crown and the courts including paying penalties and reparations, giving up any benefits acquired because of their crimes, stop their wrongdoing (obviously), and adopt any compliance measures.

Agreements are allegedly to protect employees from layoffs, as well as shield shareholders who knew nothing of the crimes while holding corporations to account for them. In order to be eligible for such an agreement, the crimes must be economic in nature, did not cause serious bodily harm, and there must be a reasonable likelihood of conviction for the offenses.

Unsurprisingly, SNC Lavalin was the first company to seek such an agreement under the new law. There was, however, a hitch. Under the law, the Attorney General of Canada must consent to the negotiation of the agreement.

This is where Jody Wilson-Raybould comes in.

Until she was switched to be the Minister of Veterans affairs in January 2019, she was the Attorney General of Canada. According to her testimony before the House of Commons at the end of February 2019, she experienced a:

“Consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada, in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.”

Jody Wilson-Raybould in the House of Commons

The accusation is that the Prime Minister’s office repeatedly pressured Wilson-Raybould to offer SNC Lavalin a Deferred Prosecution Agreement and that if such an agreement were not offered, there would be serious political consequences. As Attorney General, Wilson-Raybould had oversight and discretion over whether to intervene in cases that might be prosecuted by the Crown.

The director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Russel, informed Wilson-Raybould in September 2018 that her office had decided not to invite SNC Lavalin to negotiate a Deferred Prosecution Agreement. By September 17th, having reviewed the materials, the then Attorney General decided not to interfere, despite the pressure from cabinet members and their staff about what this would mean with regards to Quebec and the upcoming election.

In January 2019, Wilson-Raybould was informed by the Prime Minister that she would be moved or shuffled out of the position of Attorney General to that of Minister of Veterans Affairs. Shortly thereafter, in February, she resigned from the Trudeau cabinet. Shortly thereafter, Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Trudeau’s principal secretary resigned over the SNC Lavalin affair. On March 4, 2019, Treasury Board president Jane Philpott also resigned from the Trudeau cabinet.

Why is the Prime Minister so bent on protecting SNC Lavalin?

Simple: it’s an election year and SNC Lavalin plays an important role in the Quebec economy. If SNC Lavalin falls, there is a concern about the economic consequences for the province. Trudeau needs Quebec to win the and is clearly concerned that acting against its prized engineering firm will affect his chances victory in November.

Given all the scandal this has caused, protecting the SNC Lavalin may not have been worth the trouble after all. Only time will tell.

Featured image via TechCharts.net

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