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Former head of SNC construction arrested

Tags: SNC-Lavalin
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Prosecutors in Switzerland have arrested a former SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. (SNC-T) executive as part of a corruption investigation that has been underway for months and prompted an RCMP raid on SNC's head office.

The Swiss investigation adds further intrigue to a scandal that has shaken SNC, a respected Canadian company and one of the world's largest engineering firms with 28,000 employees in roughly 100 countries. The company is already reeling from allegations of $56 million in improper payments to unknown agents and the departure of three executives, including Chief Executive Officer Pierre Duhaime.

On Sunday, Switzerland's federal prosecution office said Riadh Ben Aissa, the former head of SNC's construction division, had been arrested over allegations of corruption, fraud and money laundering in North Africa.

Spokeswoman Jacqueline Buhlmann said in an e-mail that Swiss officials began their probe in May 2011 and asked for help from Canadian authorities in mid-April 2012. She declined to provide further details.

The RCMP raided SNC's Montreal headquarters earlier this month with a search warrant. RCMP spokesman Sgt. Marc Ménard would confirm only that the police force's Ottawa-based A-division, which handles international corruption investigations, had "received a request for assistance" in the case of Ben Aissa.

A source close to SNC, however, said Sunday that the raid was at the request of the Swiss.

Ben Aissa, once an executive vice president at SNC, was forced out of the company in February over allegations he approved the $56 million in payments which the company says have now vanished.

It was not clear when Ben Aissa was arrested or what charges he faces. His Canadian lawyer, Michael Edelson, declined comment.

SNC officials said they had no information about the Swiss probe until the RCMP raid.

A company spokeswoman, Leslie Quinton, said Sunday that the company knew of Ben Aissa's arrest. "It has been confirmed to SNC-Lavalin that its former executive vice-president, Riadh Ben Aissa, has been placed under arrest in Switzerland," she said. "However, we have no knowledge regarding specific details concerning his status."

SNC's board of directors launched an internal probe into Ben Aissa in December, months after Swiss officials apparently began their investigation. A source familiar with the SNC probe said the board had no idea the Swiss were looking into similar issues.

The board released a report in March revealing what it said were improper payments of $56 million, saying the money went to commercial agents to help win two construction contracts. SNC didn't identify the projects but it said the agents cannot be identified, and it is not clear if the construction contracts even existed. The board is continuing its review of the division and a source said it is not clear if all of the payments have been uncovered.

Ben Aissa has denied any wrongdoing and he threatened to sue SNC two months ago. However, he has been out of the public eye ever since and his Montreal condo is for sale.

Born in Tunisia, Ben Aissa came to Canada in the early 1980s and began working at a predecessor of SNC in 1985. He rose quickly through the ranks and wielded tremendous authority as the senior executive in charge of all construction SNC projects worldwide.

He worked mainly out of Tunisia and also oversaw SNC's operations in Libya, where he developed close ties to the sons of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Those relationships won SNC roughly $1 billion worth of contracts over the years.

The source familiar with the company's internal probe said Ben Aissa had the power to approve large expenditures and that Stephane Roy, a former vice president and Ben Aissa's long-time colleague in the construction division, was supposed to act as a financial check on the spending. However, the board alleged the two acted in concert in approving the improper payments. Roy also left SNC in February.

While it's not clear why Mr. Aissa was in Switzerland or whether he had bank accounts there, the source described the former executive as a "citizen of the world" who travelled regularly. The SNC board looked into the trail of the $56 million in payments and discovered that the money went through several banks in Europe and the Middle East.

In May 2011, Switzerland said it had frozen 830 million francs worth of assets belonging to Egypt's ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia's deposed president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the Gadhafi regime.

In January 2012, a report from Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag reported that Swiss prosecutors had broadened their investigation into the fortunes of what it called the "potentates" from Tunisia and Egypt. A spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor's office, Jeannette Balmer, told the paper at that time that in addition to allegations of money laundering, officials were also investigating allegations of "involvement and support of a criminal organization."

With reports from The Globe and Mail's Barrie McKenna in Ottawa and Catherine McLean in Switzerland

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