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Shareholders face SNC-Lavalin execs amid probe

05/03/2012 06:15 EDT | Updated 07/03/2012 05:12 EDT

The management and board of directors of SNC-Lavalin faced tough questions from shareholders Thursday as a probe into unauthorized payments at the company's North African operations widened.

Chair Gwyn Morgan, interim CEO Ian Bourne and others discussed the company's results at SNC-Lavalin's annual general meeting in Toronto. But investors most wanted to probe executives at the Montreal-based engineering giant about a scandal unfolding in Mexico and Libya.

For decades, SNC-Lavalin made huge profits on billions of dollars worth of mega projects in Libya. But the company is now dealing with internal allegations of money laundering tied to Libya’s Gadhafi regime, as well as the arrest in mid-April of former executive vice-president of construction Riadh Ben Aissa.

He resigned from the company in February and is now jailed in Switzerland accused of fraud, corruption and money laundering in North Africa.

The company's name had also surfaced in connection with Canadian consultant Cyndy Vanier, who is accused of masterminding a plot to smuggle members of the Gadhafi family into Mexico.

Vanier has been in jail in Mexico since October 2011. Catherine Allen, a friend of Vanier, was in attendance at the AGM and asked company management why they are not doing more to help her.

"You have forgotten a contract worker, and allowed her to sit in this prison," Allen said. "She is caught up in the web of deceit and theft from your company."

Company officials responded by saying the hiring of Vanier by Ben Aissa was unauthorized and declined to discuss the matter further.

"Shame on you," Allen said.

Investor John Hansen implored management to get to the bottom of the unauthorized payments — and soon.

"I'd like to know what new and novel idea Ian Bourne is going to put in place in order to … revitalize what was an excellent name and [a company] at the forefront of engineering in Canada," Hansen asked. "You have to turn it around sir, and I would like to see you turn it around very fast," he told Bourne.

"We are bound and determined to get to the bottom of this," Bourne replied. "We will keep driving and co-operating until we do get to the bottom."

At the request of Swiss officials, the RCMP conducted a search of SNC-Lavalin’s Montreal headquarters on April 13, in which thousands of documents were seized and a dozen executives were questioned.

Morgan began the AGM by addressing the probe in broad terms. "I want to tell shareholders that all of your directors have been dedicated to seeing this great Canadian company get past this challenging time," Morgan said. "The actions of a relative few do not reflect the values and commitment of the company's 28,000 employees," hesaid.

Severance questioned

The company faced questions about why it paid former CEO Pierre Duhaime $5 million when he stepped down because of code of ethics violations as the crisis was escalating at the end of March.

"He had a contract," Morgan told reporters at a press conference following the meeting. "That contract had specific amounts that [dictated] what he should be paid."

Stephen Jarislowsky, who controls 14 per cent of SNC-Lavalin's shares, told CBC News earlier this week the top executives of the company kept the board in the dark — and the board’s oversight was inadequate.

“The executives felt there were too few people on the board who really understood their business well … and therefore the executives did not use the board in the proper sense as their mentor and their boss,” the billionaire investor and fund manager said, adding he is being diplomatic in his comments.

Jarislowsky echoes some of the conclusions of the Veritas report, which called SNC-Lavalin's recent financial statements “contradictory and opaque."nd tips on this story to and .

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