SNC-Lavalin’s guilty plea to fraud charges both vindicates the stance of former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and brings to something of a close the issue that smeared Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
None of the issues at play can be put to rest, however.
The political saga was instructive, though not novel. Trudeau was on one level looking to minimize any blowback from legal action and possible financial impact on a Quebec-based company with thousands of employees. There was still a federal election on the horizon when the scandal broke, and politicians are nothing if not self-serving when it comes to protecting their own electoral hides.
More troubling, though, was the insight into the lobbying efforts and payoffs that led to hidden changes that would have given Lavalin and other corrupt offenders a free pass had not Wilson-Raybould remained so principled. One of the biggest outrages should have been the lobbying system, which must be abolished along with most campaign donations – to be fair, the Canadian system is nowhere near as corrupt and immoral as the free-for-all in the U.S. – if democracy is to be preserved.
Worse still, SNC-Lavalins bribery and shading financing are simply business as usual, and this week’s plea and resultant $280 million fine are unlikely to change that.
In this specific case, the company admitted that between 2001 and 2011, $47,689,868 was directed to Saadi Gadhafi. In exchange for the payments, Saadi Gadhafi used his influence as the son of the Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadafi to secure construction contracts for the benefit of SNC-Lavalin.
The money was directed through two companies, both of which listed Riadh Ben Aissa, former vice-president and president of SNC-Lavalin, as the sole beneficial owner.
Additionally, amounts totalling $73,582,219 were paid through the representative companies to Ben Aissa and to Sami Bebawi, former president of Lavalin, for their personal benefit. Ben Aissa pleaded guilty in Switzerland in 2014 to corruption of foreign public officials, disloyal management of funds, fraud and money laundering in relation to these same events. Bebawi was found guilty last week of fraud, corruption of a foreign public official, laundering proceeds of crime and two counts of possession of proceeds of crime by a jury in Quebec.
It’s clear to see why the company was lobbying hard to have all of that swept under a rug. Its efforts weren’t undertaken to foster the public’s best interest.
That’s true of pretty much all corporate lobbying. Things aren’t as bad in Canada as they are in the U.S., but that’s not saying much. Canada has stricter regulations against corporate lobbying than is the case to the south, where Congress long ago sold out to the highest bidders.
Just like the farce of integrity and accountability, Canadian laws governing lobbyists are rife with loopholes and ambiguities designed to keep the practice going while giving some lip service to regulating the industry.
Governments essentially pave the way for secret and unethical practices. Even what rules do exist are routinely flouted, bypassed and ignored.
A useful first stage in undoing the unethical lobbying industry would involve making the entire system transparent. If the process was entirely out in the open, at least we’d know who was lobbying the government … and we’d have an idea what they were trying to sell, typically against the public interest. Right now, we don’t have a good idea of the scale of that bad influence.
More transparency would have exposed the shady deal-making going on with Lavalin’s lobbying efforts. Actually useful anti-lobbying rules – essentially anti-corruption measures – would have avoided much of the scandal. Better still if the government automatically prosecutes and punishes corporate crooks.