SNC-Lavalin still hoping to resolve criminal charges as hearing set for 2018

MONTREAL – SNC-Lavalin hasn’t given up all hope of resolving the criminal fraud charges it faces as the date for its preliminary hearing was set Friday for the fall of 2018.

“Everything is possible in life,” lawyer Francois Fontaine told reporters after a Quebec Court judge approved a hearing set to begin Sept. 10, 2018, the first available date for which the 50 consecutive days it is scheduled to take could be set aside.

About 30 witnesses are expected to testify at the combined preliminary hearings for the Montreal-based engineering and construction giant and former executive vice-president Sami Bebawi, which were joined to save court time. However, any subsequent jury trials, likely to begin at least a year later, would be conducted separately.

SNC-Lavalin (TSX:SNC) has been pushing for Canada to adopt so-called deferred prosecution agreements found in other countries that would allow companies to settle corporate corruption cases and avoid being put at a disadvantage when competing against rival firms in other G7 countries.

“The mechanism right now…doesn’t exist in Canada so if we do have to go to trial we are prepared to do it,” added company spokesman Louis-Antoine Paquin.

SNC-Lavalin is pleading not guilty to the one fraud and one corruption charge filed a year ago by the RCMP against SNC-Lavalin and two of its subsidiaries.

The RCMP alleges SNC-Lavalin paid nearly $47.7 million to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011 to influence government decisions.

It has also charged the company, its construction division and its SNC-Lavalin International subsidiary with one charge each of fraud and one of corruption for allegedly defrauding various Libyan organizations of about $129.8 million.

In February 2014, the Mounties charged Bebawi with fraud over $5,000; two counts of laundering proceeds of crime; four counts of possession of property obtained by crime, and with bribing a foreign public official. In September 2014, the RCMP added obstructing justice to the list of charges.

Former company executive Riadh Ben Aissa, who has collaborated with the RCMP investigation, is expected to testify for the Crown in the preliminary hearing, Fontaine said.

Ben Aissa was charged with fraud-related offences in Canada in connection with a superhospital project in Montreal after he was extradited from Switzerland in October 2014.

He acknowledged in Swiss court that he bribed Saadi Gadhafi, son of Libya’s late dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, so SNC could win contracts. Ben Aissa also admitted to pocketing commissions.

Meanwhile, SNC-Lavalin has filed lawsuits seeking to recover almost $145 million it alleges was embezzled by Ben Aissa, Bebawi and their associates.