Sunday 21 April 2013

SNC-Lavalin could now be on the hook for “moral damages” to Cynthia Vanier

SNC-Lavalin's image refresh. Yikes!
As soon as Cynthia Vanier was arrested on November 10th, 2011, in Mexico City, she was at a disadvantage. Accused of being the mastermind of a complex plot to smuggle Saadi Gaddafi, the third son of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, from war-torn North Africa to Mexico, she was expected to defend herself from behind bars.

She was supposed to do this in a foreign country, in a language she did not understand, and in a highly politicized and possibly corrupt environment.

From the beginning, Vanier quarterbacked her game-plan with the help of her husband Pierre – always at her side, and an effective advocate. From Mexico the Vaniers made a strategic decision: focus on the legal route and play defense with the media. The rules were strict and, at times, arbitrary.

There were to be no interviews from jail, unless Vanier needed to call the CBC’s As It Happens. A media strategy, including press releases, was rumoured, but never occurred. Journalists were offered candy or starved.

The result was an ad hoc pastiche that, in La politica’s opinion, left the impression Vanier wanted to limit media coverage long enough to out-play and/or out-wait the Mexican judicial system. For an innocent in jail that seemed foolish; surely the best approach would be to be as open as possible. But for a person working a time-sensitive strategy that could go south with the release of more damning information, it was the right ploy. And it worked.

Though Vanier found some sympathetic ears, there was no groundswell of support from the Canadian populace. The Canadian government’s response was limited to consular support, with the political actors virtually silent. Just as remarkable, Vanier’s former paymaster, SNC-Lavalin, distanced itself to avoid any responsibility for the scandal.

Specifically, on February 15, 2012, SNC-Lavalin’s law firm, Norton Rose, had this to say in a letter to Vanier’s Canadian lawyer, Paul Copeland:

“SNC-Lavalin has never authorized any contracts or dealings of any kind with your clients and therefore, all services your clients may have rendered have been requested by employees acting outside the scope of their normal duties with the company. Furthermore, we hereby inform you that SNC-Lavalin is reviewing all payments that were made to Mrs. Vanier and/or Vanier Consulting Ltd. in 2011 and reserves all of its rights to claim back from your clients any such payments, if it appears that they were made without rights or under false pretenses.”

After you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor, note the latter comment – that’s the kicker. Vanier has always claimed that her work was legitimate, first as a “fact-finding” mission in July, 2011, and later as she put together an optimistic reintegration strategy for SNC-Lavalin’s employees in post-conflict Libya. If she was devising some sort of plan to smuggle Gaddafi, then SNC-Lavalin might have a case. If not, then the tables turn. Big time.

To La politica’s knowledge, SNC-Lavalin is not suing any of the players in the Gaddafi drama. Au contraire, it is the principal actors themselves who are going after the engineering giant.

In November of 2012 Dr. Rafik Benaissa, the brother of former SNC-Lavalin executive Riadh Ben Aissa, launched a suit against SNC-Lavalin for $5 million, claiming that his brother, now in jail in Switzerland on corruption charges, was being used as a scapegoat.

Then in February of this year former SNC-Lavalin controller Stephane Roy, who reported directly to Riadh Ben Aissa and was Vanier’s primary contact at the company, launched a wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuit. Roy is seeking $930,000 in lost salary and benefits. Interestingly, included in the claim was $100,000 in moral damages for having his reputation ruined.

Moral damages? Vanier could argue that she has those in spades. Roy is clearly not worried that SNC-Lavalin is going to spring some hidden evidence supporting a plot. Or, should that happen, he is perhaps confident that the blame will fall squarely on his former boss, Riadh Ben Aissa.

And if Stephane Roy is comfortable with his case against SNC-Lavalin, it would make sense that Vanier would be, too. When in prison in Chetumal, Mexico, Vanier expressed her confidence to La politica that the RCMP had not found – and would not find – anything incriminating on SNC-Lavalin’s email server, despite the suggestion in a search warrant that such evidence exists.

The RCMP may simply have no stomach for this. They never charged Vanier’s bodyguard Gary Peters with any crime. Instead, he was deported to Australia. They never charged Roy, who, if the plot was real, would certainly have been a central player. They let the Swiss take care of Riadh Ben Aissa. And they let  Quebec’s anti-corruption force take down former CEO Pierre Duhaime for corrupt dealings in relation to Montreal’s  $1.3 billion McGill University Health Centre. Meanwhile, the $1 billion class action against SNC-Lavalin, as well as all the other fraud investigations – and there are many – have hummed along with the RCMP keeping a low profile.

A history of legal action

During her incarceration, part of Vanier’s media strategy, such as it was, included a willingness to sue. There was good reason for this, because journalists can be hyenas, and the Mexican courts have a reckless habit of including news reports as “evidence”.

Consequently, when in late October 2011, less than two weeks before Vanier’s arrest in Mexico, Stewart Bell broke the story in the National Post of an alleged Gaddafi smuggling plot, it upset Vanier greatly. The story leaned heavily on comments from Gary Peters, Cynthia Vanier’s now-discredited bodyguard during her July, 2011 “fact-finding” mission to Libya.  Had Bell included comment from Vanier in the article, things might have been different. But he didn’t. Result? Vanier sued the National Post.

Then the National Post and La Presse requested that an RCMP search warrant of SNC-Lavalin’s offices be unsealed. A redacted version, which included damning emails between SNC-Lavalin executive Stephane Roy and Cynthia Vanier alluding to the alleged Gaddafi plot, was made available in January of this year. This resulted in another lawsuit from Vanier, this time against both the National Post and La Presse, the argument being that the affidavit should not have been reported on as it could influence an ongoing trial – i.e. Vanier’s in Mexico. La politica held off on reporting on that information until news came of Vanier’s release.

A proper attack on Canadian media wouldn’t be worth its salt if it didn’t include Canada’s “national newspaper”, the Globe & Mail. This time, the complainant was again Dr. Rafik Benaissa, the brother of SNC-Lavalin executive Riadh Ben Aissa. Dr. Benaissa’s lawsuit came in September, 2012, claiming that the Globe & Mail and also La Presse had defamed his brother’s good name. That lawsuit may be a bit leaky, given that Mr. Ben Aissa is now in jail in Switzerland facing numerous corruption charges. Nonetheless, Dr. Benaissa figured prominently in the recent Fifth Estate documentary Mission Improbable, which made a spirited case for Vanier’s innocence.

We can expect more news soon. At last count Vanier had three lawyers – from three firms – working for her in Canada. She is facing no charges, and feels deeply wronged. More lawsuits, with more information on the alleged plot, are a distinct possibility. Stay tuned.

For La politica's recent comparative analysis of the alleged email evidence against Vanier, something that no news outlet bothered to stitch together, see:

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

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