If there’s Canadian a name in the news – for the wrong reasons – more frequently than Toronto’s Rob Ford these days it has to be SNC-Lavalin. The huge Montreal-based engineering firm seems to be hit every week by new allegations of bribery, fraud, and generally unsavory business dealings.
SNC has now announced a short “amnesty” for employee whistleblowers. It says it won’t seek damages or unilaterally fire employees who (between June 3 and August 31) report violations of its code of ethics.
SNC stated, “While the vast majority of SNC-Lavalin’s employees will have nothing to report, this offer of amnesty will allow us to uncover and quickly deal with any remaining issues. Our goal is to turn the page on a challenging chapter in the company’s history…”
SNC, for those who haven’t tuned in to the news in the past five years, is acquiring a reputation for engaging in, shall I say, questionable business practices.
It is undergoing both internal and police investigations (in Canada and abroad) on alleged fraud and corrupt practices by former employees. It has been barred from bidding on World Bank Group-financed projects as a result of allegations of bribery on a bridge deal in Bangladesh.
Its former CEO and another top executive are faced with fraud charges arising from the contract to build the multi-billion dollar McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. Individuals connected with SNC have been arrested on suspicion of corruption, fraud, and money laundering in North Africa and Asia.
An internal investigation at SNC in 2012 revealed tens of millions of dollars paid to undisclosed agents connected with the company’s massive construction and pipeline operations in Libya. SNC’s Canadian offices have been raided by the RCMP in relation to a corruption probe into a bridge project in Bangladesh.
SNC’s name was connected with a Canadian consultant who was jailed in Mexico on allegations of masterminding a plot to smuggle members of Libya’s Gadhafi family out of that country. Executives of SNC have been known for their intimate ties to the Gadhafi family.
It was recently revealed that SNC offered one of the Gadhafi’s so-called “playboy” sons a six-figure salary to be a Vice President (though it’s not apparent precisely what functions he would have performed). He also happened to have been a top public official in Libya with oversight of the granting of billions of dollars in engineering projects.
Currently, the RCMP is investigating a number of SNC employees in relation to the establishment of a secret internal accounting system to facilitate the payment of bribes of public officials in Africa and Asia. Based on what former employees have said, the payment of bribes by SNC in the course of obtaining building projects appears to have been routine and systematic.
In the midst of all this mayhem, SNC has announced its so-called “amnesty” for employees who voluntarily report wrongdoing. Are they serious? Do they really think anyone is going to risk his or her employment future by participating?
First of all, it’s important to understand what the so-called amnesty entails. SNC has said it “won’t seek damages or unilaterally fire employees” who voluntarily report violations.
There are gaps in that language large enough to drive a truck through. SNC might not “seek damages” but that doesn’t mean, for instance, that it wouldn’t hand the information over to police who could use if for the purpose of prosecuting an employee.
And what does “won’t … unilaterally fire” mean? Does it mean that, for instance, if advised by a regulatory body that the whistleblowing SNC employee had engaged in wrongdoing, it might “co-operatively fire” him or her?
Second, SNC has qualified the amnesty by saying it won’t cover or anyone who directly profited from a violation. The phrase “directly profited” is, of course, open to a wide range of interpretations.
Does being paid a salary or commissions or bonuses while going along with a systematic bribery scheme amount to directly profiting? Or does one have to have actually received a bag of unmarked small bills from the son of an African dictator to have directly profited?
Third, isn’t the whole point of an amnesty that – in exchange for their co-operation – guilty parties are shielded from repercussions for their actions? What exactly is an “amnesty” which doesn’t result in the pardon of someone who has profited from a violation?
Coincidentally, I heard a CBC Radio story last week about police offering an “amnesty” to people who turn in unregistered weapons. These sorts of programs are, of course, designed to get unregistered and illegal weapons off the streets.
But, the police officer made it plain that police would be immediately checking registration numbers and doing finger-printing to determine whether the guns had ever been used in the commission of a crime. Which made me wonder, “Which part of this program amounts to an amnesty, and who would be foolish enough to participate?”
The sum total of all this is that SNC’s so-called “amnesty” likely isn’t going to attract many participants. Anyone worried about keeping his or her job – or staying out of prison – is more likely to just stay under the radar.
And, really, who could blame them? I’d suggest that any employee would be wise to hire a lawyer before participating in SNC’s scheme.
Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, operating Smithson Employment Law. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit www.smithsonlaw.ca.