Canada won a distinction last month that most of us would rather we had lost: We had the most companies on a list of firms banned from doing business with the World Bank over corruption.
In a sense, that was something of a statistical lie. All but a few of the Canadian companies banned from doing World Bank business were actually subsidiaries of one company: SNC-Lavalin, the engineering giant based out of Montreal that has now pretty much become a national (and international) embarrassment.
The allegations that have emerged against SNC-Lavalin over the past few years are almost too many to list in this article, and stray at times into the almost fantastical.
There is former CEO Pierre Duhaime's arrest by the RCMP last year over allegations of misspent funds that may have ended up as bribe money for projects in Montreal and Africa, and his re-arrest earlier this year on corruption charges linked to allegations of bribery involving the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.
There are the allegations of a ridiculously cozy relationship with the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, right down to offers of cushy executive board positions to the dictator's relatives, and allegations that the company tried to smuggle one of Gaddafi's sons into Mexico during the recent upheaval that left the dictator dead.
The allegations of bribery against the company stretch from Bangladesh to Algeria to Montreal. At Quebec's inquiry into corruption in the construction industry, the company admitted to illegally raising funds for politicians in the province.
So you would think a company that has brought so much bad publicity to Canada's name around the world, whose alleged corruption comes within a whisker of touching Canadian politicians, would be a toxic hot potato no government in Canada would want to touch.
Well, you'd be wrong. In the couple years since the allegations against SNC-Lavalin started coming to light, the company has won billions of dollars in taxpayers' money from various levels of government around the country.
Late last year, the company the World Bank won't touch won the contract to build Ottawa's long-delayed light rail, a $2.1-billion project the engineering firm won as part of a consortium, and the single largest capital undertaking in the city's history.
Months earlier, the company won the contract to build greater Vancouver's Evergreen Line, the latest addition to the city's SkyTrain network, a contract worth $889 million.
The company has had plenty of luck with the federal government as well, winning a contract worth an estimated $400 million to provide support services to Canadian troops operating overseas.
A federal Crown corporation even campaigned to help SNC-Lavalin win a contract to build a hospital in Trinidad and Tobago. But the T&T government proved to be more interested in fighting corruption than any Canadian government apparently is. It rejected doing business with SNC, or any company that has "difficulty in passing the test of confidence." Canadian governments, apparently, feel no such compulsion.
So if even Trinidad can say no to SNC-Lavalin, why can't Canada? And why doesn't Canada want to? Despite the publicity surrounding SNC's problems, the news of its lucrative contracts for taxpayers' money barely registered in the news, with the odd story here and there, and not many follow-up questions from the media.
So I decided to ask. I contacted Ottawa City Hall, to find out if the questions surrounding SNC's legal problems played any role in the city's decision to hand the company the largest infrastructure project the city has ever undertaken. I am still waiting for a response.
I contacted British Columbia's Ministry of Transportation, to ask them the same thing with respect to the Evergreen SkyTrain line. I was told that "no one is available for an interview," but was reassured that SNC won because they met all the province's requirements at the lowest cost.
But according to government documents obtained by Business In Vancouver, SNC's scandals were enough of a concern to be discussed at a meeting the Evergreen Line's project board in the summer of 2012.
"The chair asked for an update on recent press reports on SNC and whether there would be an impact on the procurement process," the minutes of the meeting stated. "The project team confirmed that SNC is required to disclose any material changes to their financial situation under the terms of the RFP."
And that's it. Much of the rest of the documents were blacked out, BIV reported.
So let's see how this works. SNC-Lavalin is good enough to win some of the largest infrastructure projects being undertaken in Canada today, but is somehow at the same time too embarrassing to talk about publicly. If you can't see the sense in this approach, you're not alone.
SO WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Granted, there are compelling reasons for SNC-Lavalin to win these contracts, particularly the Evergreen line. As B.C's Transport Ministry told me, the company has a long track record of big construction projects in B.C., including the Sea-To-Sky Highway and the William R. Bennett Bridge. The company built some of the existing SkyTrain infrastructure and holds the contract to operate it.
"SNC-Lavalin is operating 'business as usual' in B.C.," the transport ministry said. "We have done our due diligence on the procurement, and we are confident we have selected a primary contractor that can deliver the project on-time and on-budget."
"Business as usual" indeed. Not even the shattering of a company's reputation on the global stage can stop it from winning lucrative contracts in Canada.
Part of this is the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways that Canada engages in economic protectionism.
Is it a coincidence that Montreal-based Bombardier, with its train factory in Thunder Bay, keeps winning contracts to build light rail in Canada, time and again beating its major global competitors, Alstom and Siemens? It got to the point where those two companies didn't even bother bidding for Toronto's new streetcar contract when it came up several years back, despite showing initial signs of interest.
Yes, Bombardier's jobs in Thunder Bay are important. Using taxpayers' money to support local workers is, arguably, a noble compromise of free market principles, and one that's often written into the contracts governments issue.
And SNC-Lavalin, with its 12,000 Canadian employees, also benefits from these types of policies. But there has to be a limit to this kind of "Canada-first" thinking. Why? Because of moral hazard.
Moral hazard -- you've probably come across that term if you've been reading U.S. business news in recent years. It's the idea, popular among some economists, that when a business does wrong, it has to suffer some sort of punishment or it will simply keep doing wrong.
Moral hazard has been mentioned repeatedly in the context of the U.S. bank bailout of 2008-2009. Bailing out the banks was a bad idea, critics said, because it essentially rewarded those banks for making the bad bets that tanked the global economy during the Great Recession. Bail the banks out, the moral hazard theory goes, and they'll just go and do it all over again. (Evidence is mounting that this prediction is coming true.)
But moral hazard can apply to an engineering giant like SNC-Lavalin as well. Ignore the scandals engulfing the company, keep giving the company billions in government contracts, and you eliminate the incentive for the company to clean up its act.
To its credit, SNC-Lavalin is, actually, trying to clean up its act -- though some of that is undoubtedly a public-image campaign. The company announced an amnesty for its own employees, to convince people to come forward and admit wrongdoing. Thirty-two people have come forward so far, though "no new information of a material nature was revealed."
New CEO Robert Card has been busy chatting to reporters, playing up his company's efforts at revitalizing its image. And underneath it all, a simple subtext: It's just these few employees who are allegedly corrupt, not the company as a whole.
Well, so far the markets aren't buying it, and it seems to be investors who are eliminating the company's moral hazard for it. SNC stock has fallen from a peak of around $60 per share three years ago, and is hovering near the $40 mark, as many investors shy away from the embattled company.
SNC-Lavalin seriously slashed its profit outlook this week, forecasting a net income of $10 million to $50 million this year, down from a forecast of $220 million to $355 million. But that has to do with a weakening mining sector, and not with contract-issuing governments waking up and doing the right thing.
Don't count on any government in Canada to hold SNC's feet to the fire. Blinders on and taxpayers' cash in hand, they're willing to reward allegations of corruption with big, fat contracts.
After all, as B.C.'s Transport Ministry said, this is just "business as usual."
Appeared in: 'The Simpsons' Globex only appeared in a single episode, but that was one memorable episode. The company owned by Hank Scorpio at first appears to be one of those "progressive" 1990s workplaces where the boss wears loafers and everyone is on "flexi-time," until it emerges the loafer-wearing boss is a James Bond-style supervillain hell-bent on destroying the world. All while offering his employees free back rubs over lunch.
Appeared in: 'Breaking Bad' (SPOILER ALERT) Los Pollos Hermanos was ostensibly a fried-chicken restaurant chain in the southwest U.S., but was in fact a cover for a multi-million-dollar drug distribution network. Operated by Gustavo Fring and owned by German conglomerate Madrigal Electromotive, the chain's image ended in ruins when Fring's underworld dealings were exposed.
Appeared in: 'Jurassic Park' InGen spared no expense building Jurassic Park, but the only profit from its enterprise was a lesson: Don't mess with nature. For unleashing a Tyrannosaurus rex on San Diego and other outrageous mishaps, InGen gets a place on our most evil corporations list.
Appeared in: 'Office Space' Not so much evil as bureaucratic, falsely friendly and infinitely annoying, Initech is going to need you to go ahead and come in to the office this weekend, and every weekend for the rest of your life. That is, until they hire some consultants to show you you're no longer needed. The scene in which the company burns down was cathartic for countless numbers of office workers.
Appeared in: 'Wall Street' Gordon Gekko is best known for declaring "greed is good" in Oliver Stone's 'Wall Street,' and the fictional investor lived by his code. When he wasn't manipulating employees into illegally obtaining information for the purposes of insider trading, he was busy selling off viable companies for parts and causing mass layoffs. It all ended in a police sting operation and an eight-year prison sentence, but Gekko made enough of an impression to make the list.
Appeared in: 'Angel' To say that a law firm is "evil" isn't really saying much we didn't already know, but Wolfram & Hart is special: Its senior partners are three demons known as the Wolf, the Ram and the Heart. Its lawyers represented the worst of humanity and demonkind alike, but in the end Angel and his team were actually put in charge of the firm, with the show trying to answer the question: Can you actually change the establishment from the inside? Apparently not, since show concluded with Angel and friends avoiding being corrupted by standing their ground and sparking the apocalypse.
Appeared in: 'Spider-Man' franchise The company founded by Norman Osborn "typically deals with experimental science, military research and cross-species genetics," according to the Amazing Spider-Man Wiki. Among the company's transgressions: Building a giant space robot to kill Spider-Man; creating prosthetic limbs that turn you into a lizard; and inadvertently creating Electro, a human electrical capacitor.
Appeared in: 'Good Burger' Possibly the world's most evil fast food outlet, Mondo Burger poisons the competition's food and literally tries to seduce people into working for the company. When its nefarious schemes are uncovered, the company kidnaps the would-be whistleblowers and puts them in a mental hospital. Would you like a side of evil with your burger?
Appeared in: 'Citizen Kane' At the height of his power, Charles Foster Kane controlled two newspaper syndicates and a radio network. The first newspaper he owned, the New York Inquirer, managed to start the Spanish-American War in 1898 with false, warmongering news reports. From then on, Kane leveraged his news empire for his personal and political benefit, until he finally died, alienated and alone, with the word "Rosebud" on his lips. "You provide the prose poems; I'll provide the war," goes Kane's infamous line from the movie. No comment here on well-known parallels between Kane's empire and <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Randolph_Hearst" target="_blank">a certain real-world newspaper publisher</a>.
Appeared in: 'Resident Evil' Like sci-fi movies, video games are full of evil corporations, and among the most notable is Umbrella Corporation, a massive conglomerate from the 'Resident Evil' universe that, on the surface, makes happy little cosmetics and food products, but is in fact a thoroughly evil producer of weaponized viruses that turn people into zombies. They maintain their empire through the use of a heavily-equipped paramilitary group that pretty much looks like an independent army, with its fleet of attack helicopters, cargo ships and planes.
Appeared in: 'Wall-E' Buy n' Large is every anti-corporate consumer advocate's worst dream: A company that eventually buys out all other companies and effectively rules the world, eventually polluting the planet so badly that the entire population of earth is forced into living in spaceships... built and operated by Buy n' Large.
Appeared in: 'Robocop' franchise Like many other corporations in dystopian sci-fi flicks, OCP is a company that makes everything, including entire cities and robotic cops. The company privatizes the entire city of Detroit, renaming it "Delta City" and ruling it with an indiscriminate iron fist. Given Detroit's recent bankruptcy, that part doesn't even seem far-fetched at the moment.
Appeared in: 'Austin Powers' franchise Virtucon CEO Number Two had just built the company into a legitimate multi-billion-dollar corporation when its founder, Dr. Evil, was revived from cryogenic freezing and retook the company as part of his plan for world domination (or whatever it was). Its annual sales are estimated at... one million dollars!
Appeared in: 'Blade Runner' Tyrell Corp. could be said to be more controversial than downright evil, but it crossed a major moral line when it started producing cyborgs ("replicants") identical to humans who don't know they're machines. "More human than a human" is Tyrell's motto.
Appeared in: 'Superman' Lexcorp is Lex Luthor's giant holding company, which he uses to carry out his nefarious, often real estate-related schemes. According to Wikipedia, Lexcorp "has become one of the world's largest, most diversified multinational corporations. Under the astute -- some would say, ruthless -- management of its founder, Lex Luthor, LexCorp grew and prospered, absorbing scores of smaller businesses."
Appeared in: <em>The Crying of Lot 49</em>, 'Buckaroo Banzai,' 'Star Trek' Yoyodyne, an aerospace defense giant, is remarkable for how many different works of fiction it has appeared in. The company first appears in Thomas Pynchon's 1960s novels <em>V.</em> and <em>The Crying of Lot 49</em>, before making an appearance in 1984's 'Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai,' where it was a front for an alien invasion of Earth. Some Trekkies swear the company built Starfleet's ships in the 'Star Trek' franchise, and the company is even a client of the previously mentioned law firm Wolfram & Hart on the TV series Angel.
Appeared in: 'Alien' franchise Known as Weiland in the original 'Alien' and Weiland-Yutani thereafter, this company keeps sacrificing employees in order to bring the alien to Earth. It's never been entirely clear how an uncontrollable, remorseless killing machine can be turned into a marketable military weapon, but as long as they keep making 'Alien' movies, Weiland-Yutani is sure to keep trying. <a href="http://www.forbes.com/2007/12/10/largest-fictional-companies-oped-books-fict1507-cx_mn_de_1211company_slide_11.html" target="_blank">Forbes estimates</a> Weiland-Yutani's annual revenue at $59.4 billion. (They run an intergalactic shipping company, after all.)
Appeared in: 'Futurama' Mom's Friendly Robot Company has a monopoly on the robot industry in the 30th century, and the sole shareholder is Mom. Though her public image is warm and friendly, underneath she's a mean old bat with a unique way of using profanities ("Stuff a bastard in it, you crap!"). Her evil culminated with a plot in which she attempted to use the robots she built to take over planet Earth.
Appeared in: 'Soylent Green' (SPOILER ALERT) Soylent Corp. at first appeared to have solved the 21st century's massive overcrowding and food shortage problems with a new food product called Soylent Green, a green wafer billed as containing "high-energy plankton." But then it turns out Soylent Green is, you know, made of people.
Appeared in: 'The Simpsons' What can be said about a nuclear power plant that has Homer Simpson as its chief safety inspector? C. Montgomery Burns' operation has suffered countless meltdowns and near-meltdowns, and its waste disposal methods have left three-eyed fish in Springfield's waterways. The company's evil peaked in 1995, when Burns used a massive metal dish to block out the sun over Springfield, forcing everyone to consume more of the nuke plant's power. For his efforts, Burns got a bullet to the chest.
Appeared in: 'A Christmas Carol' Scrooge & Marley, a loan-shark operation in 19th-century London, was infamous for its policy of forcing employees to work on Christmas Day, so that the company wouldn't fall behind on its mortgage foreclosures. Seven years after partner Jacob Marley's death, owner Ebenezer Scrooge experienced a Christmas Eve revelation, convincing him to turn the company into a charitable organization. It went bankrupt shortly thereafter.
Appeared in: 'The Terminator' franchise Cyberdyne Systems built Skynet, the defense computer program that came to life and destroyed the human race, paving the way for the rise of the machines -- machines that were themselves designed by Cyberdyne, such as the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 cyborg pictured here.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: 18 Real-World CEOs Who Look Like Villains
Dr. Evil from <em>Austin Powers</em>, played by Mike Meyers, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
Alistair Hennessey from <em>The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou</em>, played by Jeff Goldblum, and former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit.
Emperor Palpatine from <em>Star Wars</em>, played by Ian McDiarmid, and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch.
Nurse Ratched from <em>One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest</em>, played by Louise Fletcher, and Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman.
Ashley Schaeffer from HBO's <em>Eastbound and Down</em>, played by Will Ferrell, and Virgin CEO Richard Branson.
Lex Luthor from <em>Superman Returns</em>, played by Kevin Spacey, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Regina George from <em>Mean Girls</em>, played by Rachel McAdams, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
The White Witch from <em>The Chronicles of Narnia</em>, played by Tilda Swinton, and Fidelity Investments CEO Abigail Johnson.
Ty Moncrief from <em>Drop Zone</em>, played by Gary Busey, and Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries.
Emperor Commodus from <em>Gladiator</em>, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and Google CEO Larry Page.
James Bond villain Goldfinger from <em>Goldfinger</em>, played by Gert Fröbe, and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt.
Daniel Plainview from <em>There Will Be Blood</em>, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.
Boris Badenov from <em>Rocky and Bulwinkle</em>, voiced by Paul Frees for much of the show's run, and Telmex CEO Carlos Slim.
Stuntman Mike from <em>Deathproof</em>, played by Kurt Russell, and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan.
Count Rugen from <em>The Princess Bride</em>, played by Christopher Guest, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison.
The Boss from <em>Lucky Number Slevin</em>, played by Morgan Freeman, and American Express CEO Kenneth Chennault
Henry Evans from <em>The Good Son</em>, played by Macaulay Culkin, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Chairman of the Trump Organization Donald Trump and Donald Trump from <em>The Apprentice</em>.