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COMMENTARY: Politically and legally, the SNC-Lavalin affair has hurt Canada’s image

SNC-Lavalin pleads guilty to fraud, to pay $280M fine
Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin has pleaded guilty to one count of fraud, and will pay a $280-million fine for bribes the company made to secure projects in Libya years ago.

After dominating so much of the national conversation in 2019, the SNC-Lavalin saga has come to a rather abrupt end just as 2019 draws to a close.

It’s likely not the last we’ve heard of the controversy surrounding the company or the ensuing political scandal, though. There are still some legal and sentencing matters to be sorted out for at least one former high-ranking company executive, and it’s still possible that the opposition parties in Ottawa might use their newfound clout under this minority government to have some committees revisit this whole matter.

It’s also fair to ask why the Liberals were so inclined to go to the mat for SNC-Lavalin, both in terms of introducing the option of a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) and then taking the political risk of inappropriately leaning on the attorney general to ensure the DPA was utilized; all the while, of course, selling us on the terrible fate that might befall the company — and its thousands of employees — if it didn’t get its way.

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Trudeau says SNC-Lavalin plea a positive outcome
Trudeau says SNC-Lavalin plea a positive outcome

And after all that, what do we have? A plea deal — not a DPA, it should be noted — for the company that will see it pay a $280-million fine … and that’s about it. It does not appear as though thousands of jobs will be lost and the company’s status as a Canadian-based company remains secure. The lucrative future government contracts the company had so badly feared losing out on will still be there.

For his part, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that had he known how this was all going to play out, in the end, he probably would have done some things differently. This is an interesting admission since it implies that the company’s interests have been front and centre all along.

But all the political drama and all the sighs of relief on SNC-Lavalin’s behalf either obscure or miss a crucial point in all of this: the allegations against the company represent one of the most serious cases of corporate corruption Canada has ever had to deal with. Our reaction shouldn’t be, “Wow, this could have been so much worse for the company,” but rather, “Did the company get off too easy?”

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READ MORE: Crown says former SNC-Lavalin boss should be sentenced to 9 years

The extent to which SNC-Lavalin was lavishing money, gifts and services onto the son of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and others — all told, nearly $48-million — in order to secure lucrative contracts should trouble us all. Had the regime not collapsed in 2011, this scheme might have continued on.

We shouldn’t just look at this as the cost of doing business in a country like Libya. This involved a regime that was suppressing human rights and a scheme that ultimately fleeced the people of Libya. As the anti-corruption group Transparency International notes, “corruption undermines economic development and good governance.”

When this political scandal first broke back in March, the OECD took the opportunity to let us know it was watching how matters were unfolding and to gently remind us of our obligations under the Anti-Bribery Convention, to which we are a party.

Not only that, but this is a company that has a track record of this kind of shady behavior. If it hasn’t learned a lesson previously, perhaps now was that opportunity.

Ontario supporters chant “Lock him up” as Scheer proposes judicial inquiry on Trudeau
Ontario supporters chant “Lock him up” as Scheer proposes judicial inquiry on Trudeau

Unfortunately, it all feels like a failed test and a missed opportunity. The fraud charge that the company agreed to plead guilty to conveniently means it avoids a conviction on a charge of bribery which — as per the Anti-Bribery Convention — would have meant an automatic ban on the company receiving any public contracts.

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It still profited from its dealings in Libya and will soon be profiting again from future dealings with governments here in Canada. What so often gets overlooked in the debate around jobs is that if SNC-Lavalin were shut out of these contracts, other companies would fill that void. Work would still need to be done and people would still be needed to do the work. SNC-Lavalin’s losses would therefore be another company’s gains — perhaps a company with a less checkered past.

Transparency International calls the guilty plea and the fine a “modest win” for Canada’s anti-corruption regime, which is probably being somewhat generous. Hopefully, though, this can mark a turning point not just for this troubled company but also for our willingness to take such matters seriously.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.