Monday, February 13, 2012

Canadian Company Swept Up in Suspected Plot to Smuggle a Qaddafi

The Canadian company SNC-Lavalin had paid more than $100,000 to a consultant charged in what the authorities call a plot to smuggle one of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s sons into Mexico.

OTTAWA — It began as a seemingly implausible tale of a consultant from small-town Canada charged in what the authorities call a plot to smuggle Saadi el-Qaddafi, a son of the former Libyan dictator, intoMexico.

Tim Wimborne/Reuters

There are charges of a plot to take Saadi el-Qaddafi to Mexico.

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But in the backdrop, questions have loomed about the role of a multibillion-dollar Canadian company that had extensive business dealings with the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and paid the consultant more than $100,000 to travel to Libya, despite her evident inexperience in the region.

The lingering questions jumped to the forefront on Thursday when the company, SNC-Lavalin, announced that it had fired two senior executives connected to the accused consultant, suggesting that they had run afoul of its “code of ethics and business conduct.”

SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian engineering and construction giant, had significant business connections with the Qaddafi government, and with Saadi el-Qaddafi in particular. During last year’s turmoil in Libya, about 1,000 foreigners were working for SNC-Lavalin inside the country. Leslie Quinton, a spokeswoman for the company, confirmed that its projects included the construction of the “Judicial City” prison in collaboration with the Libyan Engineering Corps led by Mr. Qaddafi.

Last year, SNC-Lavalin also agreed to pay the jailed consultant, Cynthia Vanier, more than $100,000 to travel to Libya, Ms. Quinton said, in order to act “as a third-party adviser, to counsel on how to resume our operations in Libya, especially on issues regarding the safety and security of our personnel.”

While the company has consistently denied any involvement in “an attempt at an extraction mission,” exactly how or why it became involved with Ms. Vanier, who was charged last week by the Mexican authorities in connection with the supposed plot, remains unclear. Little in Ms. Vanier’s background made her an obvious candidate for assessing the situation in Libya on behalf of a corporation with long experience of its own in that region.

Through a small consulting firm she ran with her husband, Pierre, and one employee in Mount Forest, Ontario, Ms. Vanier mainly acted as a mediator in disputes involving indigenous groups in Canada. Her résumé does not indicate that she has any experience in Libya or an educational background related to the region.

Nor did the company specifically explain in a brief statement released on Thursday night why it had fired the two executives, Riadh Ben Aïssa, a Tunisian-born Canadian who was executive vice president of the construction and infrastructure division, and Stéphane Roy, the vice president of finance for that unit.

Adding to the mystery, Mr. Ben Aïssa said in a statement that he would sue the company for suggesting that he was fired for ethical violations, but his spokesman would not explain why he left the company, although he said that the departure was voluntary.

Within SNC-Lavalin, documents show that Mr. Roy was Ms. Vanier’s contact. After traveling to Libya by private jet, Ms. Vanier produced a five-page report highly critical of the NATO-led bombing campaign in support of Libyan rebels.

Mr. Roy praised the report as “eye-opening” in a letter to her dated Aug. 4, 2011. He added: “Hopefully, as a neutral third party, your findings will be able to shed the truth on the real events happening on the ground.”

Last December, Ms. Quinton, the SNC-Lavalin spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the report marked the end of the company’s involvement with Ms. Vanier. Last week, she changed the story, indicating that Mr. Roy continued to work with Ms. Vanier until her arrest in November.

Gary P. Peters, who provided security for Ms. Vanier’s trip to Libya, said that the company sent him to Tunis at its expense in September. While there, he said, he joined Mr. Ben Aïssa and Mr. Roy, the two executives, at an SNC-Lavalin office for a teleconference call with Mr. Qaddafi. The company acknowledged that a meeting with Mr. Peters took place, yet refused to say who attended, arguing that it “did not result in any contract or business arrangement.”

But after that meeting, Mr. Peters said, he then traveled to Libya and led a group that escorted Mr. Qaddafi to the border with Niger, where he remains.

Paul Copeland, Ms. Vanier’s Canadian lawyer, said that border officials twice conducted unusually comprehensive searches of jets that Ms. Vanier used to travel to and from Mexico, where she and her husband own a home.

On Nov. 10, the Mexican police swept in and arrested Ms. Vanier in Mexico City. The next day, Mr. Roy arrived in Mexico expecting to meet Ms. Vanier to “discuss potential water treatment projects,” SNC-Lavalin later said in an e-mail. The company said that Mr. Roy was present when an associate of Ms. Vanier’s was arrested. It declined to explain why Mr. Roy would be conducting such a trip. It said last week that he was not detained by the Mexican authorities and, to its knowledge, is not the subject of any investigation.

Mexican officials claim that Ms. Vanier was carrying forged documents at the time of her arrest and had negotiated a property purchase that was being made on Mr. Qaddafi’s behalf.

Ms. Vanier and Gabriela Dávila Huerta, a friend and associate of Ms. Vanier, have been charged with organized crime, attempted human trafficking and falsifying documents. A Danish citizen, Pierre Christian Flensborg, and a Mexican, José Luis Kennedy, had received the same charges, but a judge dismissed the organized crime and document falsification ones this week. Mr. Flensborg was arrested with Ms. Davila as they left a hotel in Mexico City with Mr. Roy on Nov. 11.

Ms. Vanier’s parents said that the fake documents were planted in a wallet that she received as a gift, and that the real estate dealings were nothing more than an attempt by Ms. Vanier and her husband to trade up to a better vacation home.

But John MacDonald, her father, acknowledged that they, too, were confused by the chain of events that have left their daughter in a Mexican jail for months.

Ian Austen reported from Ottawa, and Elisabeth Malkin from Mexico City.

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