MONTREAL — A former SNC-Lavalin executive on trial for fraud and corruption tried to pay $10 million to have a key Crown witness change his story about the company’s dealings in Libya, the star witness told jurors Tuesday.
The allegation on Day 4 of the trial of Sami Bebawi came from the accused’s former subordinate at the Montreal-based engineering giant, Riadh Ben Aissa.
Ben Aissa told the court the sizable cash offer came while he was detained in Switzerland in an exchange between his legal representatives in that country and a lawyer representing Bebawi at the time, Constantine Kyres.
“I was offered $10 million in exchange for corroborating the version of Sami Bebawi,” Ben Aissa said, referring to an account given to Swiss authorities by the accused.
“I refused it,” Ben Aissa added. “And I informed the Canadian authorities.”
Bebawi, 73, faces eight charges, including fraud, corruption, laundering proceeds of crime, possession of stolen goods and bribery of foreign officials. The Crown alleges Bebawi pocketed $26 million.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which involve contracts tied to the Moammar Gadhafi dictatorship. The trial has centred on dealings with Gadhafi’s son, Saadi, whose ties made doing business in that country easier.
Emails to and from Ben Aissa showed the company was closely involved in the younger Gadhafi’s travels to Canada, acting as an intermediary for his discussions with the federal government.
Ben Aissa testified Tuesday about SNC-Lavalin actions to purchase for Saadi Gadhafi a U.S.-made luxury yacht — the Hokulani — for $25 million after landing a major contract in Libya. He said the purchase was brought to the attention of Bebawi, who came back shortly afterward to say it had been approved by the then-president of SNC-Lavalin, Jacques Lamarre.
Attitudes changed after turmoil struck Libya in 2011, and Ben Aissa testified he was told to ensure there was a firewall between the company and the Gadhafi family.
Shortly before his Swiss arrest, Ben Aissa said he received a panicked phone call from Bebawi, who he said threatened suicide.
“He was saying I had to resolve the situation in Switzerland and that he can’t be impacted by what was going on,” Ben Aissa told the jury. Bebawi expressed concerns about two shell companies used to deposit kickbacks, Ben Aissa said, adding that he assured him those companies had been closed.
The Crown has called the case one ”of international fraud and corruption,” with Bebawi driving the business model to obtain lucrative contracts. The prosecution alleges Bebawi received millions of dollars stemming from those deals, which began in the late 1990s.
The prosecution is trying to prove SNC-Lavalin transferred about $113 million to shell companies used to pay people — including Saadi Gadhafi — who helped the company collect money and secure contracts. What was left in those accounts was split between Ben Aissa and Bebawi, it is alleged
Ben Aissa testified that Bebawi maintained pressure on him to do what was needed to keep the contracts. Ben Aissa became an SNC executive himself in 2007, replacing Bebawi, and he remained in that role until February 2012 when he resigned from the company. He was arrested by authorities in Switzerland in April 2012.
He spent 30 months in preventive detention in Switzerland before pleading guilty there to bribing foreign officials and money laundering stemming from the Libya dealings.
He signed an agreement to co-operate with the RCMP while in Swiss detention and was extradited to Canada, where he was sentenced to one day in jail stemming from a conviction involving SNC-Lavalin executives and a contract to build a Montreal hospital.
Ben Aissa said he didn’t receive any benefit from federal authorities in return, apart from an assurance he wouldn’t be prosecuted in Canada on the actions that led to the Swiss charges.
The trial is expected to last six weeks.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2019.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press