Here’s the problem, and it’s a simple one, really.
The federal government has laws that specify how companies can act, and penalties for certain things — like, say, being convicted of paying bribes to obtain work.
One of those laws is the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, which brought Canada into the fold with 43 other nations in an effort to deal with corruption in international contracts.
Those penalties include things like being banned from federal contracts for a decade — and not only being banned from federal contracts, but also suffering the reputational problem of explaining that ban to potential international customers.
“So, they want to pay a bribe to get out of being punished for paying bribes?”
But what do you do when one of the companies charged with paying bribes on an international project is not only a huge Canadian engineering and project management company, but also a big employer that provides plenty of jobs, including in the prime minister’s own riding?
That’s the issue for SNC-Lavalin, currently facing charges over allegations that it paid bribes in Libya to land contracts. The company was charged in 2015.
You can understand, pragmatically, why the government would be doing backflips to try and find a solution for SNC’s problem. (As a St. John’s businessman once said to me, “If you owe the bank $10,000 and you can’t pay, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $10 million and you can’t pay, that’s the bank’s problem.”)
And backflips the government has done. In fact, in the most recent federal budget, the Trudeau government changed the rules on how companies can settle criminal charges like this, allowing firms to pay fines and obey conditions on their behaviour, without having a conviction registered against them (therefore allowing them to be able to continue bidding on federal contracts). Problem is, federal prosecutors haven’t been agreeable to going that route, something that’s at the centre of the cabinet resignation by former federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Of course, it’s only big companies get that kind of opportunity; normal people, facing charges, have to deal with the penalties.
Try explaining that process to someone with the laser-sharp black-and-white ethical sensibilities of a 20-year-old. I did — their response was, “So, they want to pay a bribe to get out of being punished for paying bribes?”
It is, in the end, SNC-Lavalin’s problem. This is not new legislation — it’s been around since 1997. Everyone knew the rules, whether they thought they were immune to the consequences or not.
The World Bank, in 2013, banned SNC-Lavalin from working on bank-funded projects for a decade, after the company negotiated a settlement to bribery complaints surrounding its contract for the $3-billion Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project in Bangladesh. There were also bribery charges laid against officials with the company in relation to its contract for a new Montreal hospital.
So, there seems to be something of a trend in the company’s conduct.
And while the realpolitik of protecting the jobs of those inside the company — and Canada’s own economic interests — might be obvious, it’s also, well, scummy.
Interestingly, guidelines to the Corruption of Public Officials Act say quite clearly that prosecutors making the decision on whether to charge companies under the act, “shall not be influenced by considerations of national economic interest…” And “shall not” is pretty darned definite.
So, what exactly does a corporate get-out-of-jail card say about the rest of us?
Does it say we’re willing to ignore bribery and corruption, as long as Canadians are the ones paying the bribes?
We’ve got to decide where we want to stand here — is it with the interests of the global community in stopping bribery and corruption, or on the spot where corruption is excusable, as long as it’s our own?
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky