Engineering giant SNC-Lavalin was so focused on securing a relationship with Saadi Gadhafi, son of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, that its executives were urging Canadian foreign affairs, immigration services and embassies to enable a visit to Montreal.
And once the dictator’s son did come to the city for the first time, in Jan. 2001, SNC-Lavalin wanted to be the only company to have access to him.
“We are the ones inviting him and the ones that are running to get the visa processed,” a company email read before the visit. “Nobody else should get the benefit.”
The firm’s efforts to get Gadhafi to Canada were detailed Friday morning during the second day of former SNC-Lavalin executive vice-president Sami Bebawi’s fraud and corruption trial at the Montreal courthouse.
On Thursday, the jury heard how the Crown alleges that the firm’s relationship with Gadhafi led to a scheme in Libya that involved paying millions in kickbacks and bribes to keep steering lucrative contracts its way.
That plan had become SNC-Lavalin’s “business model” in the country, the Crown argued.
Riadh Ben Aissa, a former executive, testified that Bebawi had pressured him to find a solution “by any means necessary” to recuperate losses the engineering firm was incurring through a project tied to the Libyan government. The firm had filed a multimillion-dollar claim to regain its money but the negotiations weren’t going anywhere.
Ben Aissa was arrested in Switzerland in 2012 for his role in the firm’s Libyan dealings. While detained, he signed an agreement to collaborate with Canadian authorities.
He testified Thursday that Bebawi told him he was to do whatever it takes — and pay whoever was necessary — to ensure the firm settled the claim.
That order, he said, led him to develop a relationship with Saadi Gadhafi. From there, the company managed to settle the claim with Gadhafi’s help, the Crown argued, which set off a system of bribes and kickbacks.
The Crown intends on proving Bebawi pocketed upwards of $26 million through his role. It also says the firm’s gifts to Saadi Gadhafi culminated with a $25-million, 150-foot yacht.
Asked Friday morning where Gadhafi’s interest in coming to Canada stemmed from, Ben Aissa said it was simple.
“He wanted to discover the country and get to know the company, too — he wanted to see what it could do, to better understand it in order to better support it,” he said.
And as for SNC-Lavalin’s interest in helping him come?
“SNC-Lavalin’s interest was to win our claim, regain our money, obtain other projects under favourable conditions and make money,” Ben Aissa said. “There was a lot of work in Libya and it was a market that was of much interest to SNC-Lavalin.”
Before Gadhafi and his five bodyguards came, SNC-Lavalin company emails show the firm was willing to spare no expense to charm him during the visit, including the firm hosting tours of Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Niagara Falls.
“Usually we book a whole floor where Gadhafi will stay in the best suite in the hotel,” Ben Aissa wrote shortly before the trip. “What is the most luxury hotel in Montreal?”
The trial continues Friday afternoon.