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RCMP officers are conducting a search Friday at the Montreal headquarters of engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., in a probe that appears directed at recently departed executives and at the firm's operations in North Africa.
SNC (SNC-T) is in the midst of a scandal over $56 million in improper payments, missing cash in Libya, and the recent departures of three top executives, including Riadh Ben Aissa, who ran the firm's operations in Libya.
SNC confirmed that police executed a search warrant Friday, saying that "the warrant relates to an investigation of certain individuals who are not or are no longer employed by the company."
Three weeks ago, SNC released an internal probe into suspect payments totalling $56 million. The money was supposed to be paid to agents SNC hired to win contracts on two unnamed projects.
SNC didn't say where the projects were located, but about $22.5 million went through the company's office in Tunisia in 2010 and 2011.
The money that transited through the Tunisian SNC office was "improperly approved" by Ben Aissa, the internal review said.
An executive vice-president, the Tunisian-born Ben Aissa, ran SNC's construction operations worldwide. He had a close relationship with Saadi Gadhafi, a son of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and helped steer several megaprojects for SNC in Libya.
SNC's review also alleged that chief executive officer Pierre Duhaime improperly approved some of the payments over the objections of SNC's chief financial officer. Duhaime is accused of no wrongdoing and retired.
Ben Aissa and another former executive from his division, Controller Stéphane Roy, left SNC in February.
The company was also embroiled in controversy after a Canadian consultant it hired and sent on a fact-finding mission in Libya, Cynthia Vanier, was arrested and accused of masterminding a plot to smuggle Saadi Gadhafi from Niger into Mexico.
Ben Aissa has denied any wrongdoing and threatened to sue SNC over his departure.
SNC was among the multinational corporations who gained a toehold into Libya after the Gadhafi regime renounced terrorism and enjoyed a honeymoon with West governments in recent years.
The firm's Libyan contracts included a $425 million water-diversion project, a $500 million airport in Benghazi, a prison in Tripoli, as well as roads, bridges and housing developments.
When the firm pulled out from Libya last year as the country was engulfed in a revolution, the company left behind $22.9 million in cash in Libyan banks. While it said there is "risk to its current ability to repatriate" the missing money, SNC hopes to recover the funds if it returns to operations in Libya.
SNC's board of directors contacted the police after last month's internal review.
Late Friday morning, RCMP showed up at SNC's downtown Montreal offices on René-Lévesque Blvd. after employees were suddenly ordered to leave the building.
Many RCMP officers were on the 21st floor of the office tower, where the senior executives are, said an employee.
"All the police, all the company lawyers, they're checking everything, everything," he said.
Others refused to comment, but shrugged as they left. "Friday the 13th," one said.
The firm is also under an ongoing investigation into allegations that SNC officials bribed government officials involved in the massive Padma bridge project in Bangladesh. RCMP officers executed a search warrant at an SNC office in Oakville, Ont., last September.
Earlier this month, the World Bank, which was providing $1.2 billion in financing for the bridge and alerted the RCMP about the allegations, temporarily suspended the rights of an SNC subsidiary to bid on the project in Bangladesh.