Former attorney general of Quebec denies involvement in scheme that broke Canadian election law
A confidential document sent to the Liberal Party of Canada in 2016, and obtained by CBC/Radio-Canada, reveals how top officials at the embattled engineering firm SNC-Lavalin were named in a scheme to illegally influence Canadian elections.
The list of names, compiled in 2016 by federal investigators probing political party donations and leaked to CBC's The Fifth Estate and Radio-Canada's Enquête, raises new questions about an agreement by the Commissioner of Canada Elections not to prosecute the company.
The federal Liberals were sent the list in a letter marked "confidential" from the Commissioner of Canada Elections — the investigative branch of Elections Canada — on Aug. 5, 2016. But for nearly three years, neither Elections Canada nor the Liberal Party shared that information publicly.
The investigation reveals that over a period of more than five years between 2004 and 2009, 18 former SNC-Lavalin employees, directors and some spouses contributed nearly $110,000 to the federal Liberals, including to four party leadership campaigns and four riding associations in Quebec.
According to the letter, the investigation found that SNC-Lavalin reimbursed all of those individual donations — a practice forbidden under the Canada Elections Act.
"Money is an enormous advantage in an election campaign," said Jeff Ayotte, a defence lawyer with expertise in Canadian election law.
"I don't know SNC-Lavalin's intent, but certainly, the benefit to the candidates is enormous."
The illicit SNC-Lavalin operation went undetected for nearly a decade. Despite the evidence collected by investigators, the Commissioner of Canada Elections decided not to bring charges against the company, which is headquartered in Montreal but operates around the world.
"We know that the decisions to take part in this scheme took place at the very highest levels of SNC-Lavalin," said Ayotte. "'[It] seems to all suggest to me that there should have been a prosecution."
Only 1 SNC executive charged
SNC-Lavalin avoided charges by signing what is known as a "compliance agreement" in 2016 with the Commissioner of Canada Elections after promising not to break the law in the future.
That was not the case for Conservative Peterborough MP Dean DelMastro, who was charged by the commissioner over $21,000 in spending violations in the 2008 federal election and was represented by Ayotte at his 2014 trial.
"You would think that the more serious, more deliberate, more long-term, more sophisticated scheme involving more money and more candidates and more elections would be prosecuted," said Ayotte.
"But just the opposite happened."
Ayotte said the compliance agreement effectively amounts to letting SNC-Lavalin off the hook. Only one SNC-Lavalin official was charged in the scheme.
The Commissioner of Canada Elections sent the letter to the Liberal Party in 2016 in order to have the $110,000 in improper donations returned to the federal treasury.
The Liberal Party repeatedly refused to provide the names of those involved when asked by reporters for CBC/Radio-Canada. The Conservative Party, which received $8,187.73 in the same scheme, immediately provided its list of SNC-Lavalin names to CBC/Radio-Canada when asked.
Both parties reimbursed the money to the receiver general in August 2016.
Some of those whose names appeared on the list told The Fifth Estate/Enquête that they were not involved in any illegal reimbursement scheme.
However, in his letter to the Liberal Party, the Commissioner of Canada Elections stated that all those donations listed were made, indirectly, by SNC-Lavalin itself. The commissioner stated that the SNC-Lavalin contributions were "ineligible" — meaning they violated the law — and had to be paid back.
SNC-Lavalin did not return calls from CBC/Radio-Canada. The firm's current president, Neil Bruce, who signed the 2016 compliance agreement, stated in that agreement that all of the senior people involved in the scheme had left the engineering firm by 2016.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the revelations on his way in to a Liberal cabinet meeting Tuesday morning.
"We recognize that 10 years ago there were issues around political financing that have been raised," he said. "When we came to power and when I became leader of the Liberal Party, we made significant changes to the fundraising regime. We have moved forward on transparency and openness, and that is not what happens anymore."
'I never acted as a straw donor'
The leaked documents show that among the group donating to the Liberals was Kathleen Weil, the spouse of former senior SNC-Lavalin executive Michael Novak. Weil is a former Quebec justice minister and attorney general and a sitting member of the Quebec National Assembly.
The list shows that on June 30, 2004, four years before she was first elected to the Quebec National Assembly, Weil made a $5,000 donation to the federal Liberals that the Commissioner of Canada Elections found was "reimbursed" by SNC-Lavalin.
The letter states Weil made the contribution on the same day that nine other SNC-Lavalin executives or their spouses made similar donations.
In a phone call with CBC/Radio Canada, Weil denied any knowledge of the scheme.
"I would never have and I never acted as a straw donor."
In an emailed statement, Weil said, "My donations to political parties have always been made in good faith and on a personal basis without compensation or consideration and without reimbursement or promise of reimbursement from whomsoever."
Weil's husband, Michael Novak, also firmly denied he received bonuses to compensate him or his wife for their political donations.
The Commissioner of Canada Elections states in the letter that Novak made three donations, adding up to $5,672.91, for which he was compensated by SNC-Lavalin in 2004 and 2008.
In a phone interview, Novak said he met with the commissioner's investigators in 2014 and that he told them they were mistaken.
Novak said he received numerous bonuses from SNC-Lavalin throughout the years, but as far as he knew, none was linked to his political donations. If investigators found evidence of SNC-Lavalin repayments in the form of bonuses, "it would have been done without my knowledge," he said.
Novak said that SNC-Lavalin actively encouraged company officials to make donations, and even collected the cheques to deliver to the Liberal Party.
Novak insisted there was "nothing … untoward" about making donations like this and that he was unaware that there was an illegal reimbursement scheme going on.
Most of the senior executives on the list contacted by CBC/Radio-Canada declined to be interviewed.
'We were given a bonus'
But two non-executive SNC-Lavalin employees who agreed to speak with The Fifth Estate/Enquête about the scheme said they were definitely told their political donations would be reimbursed in the form of bonuses from SNC-Lavalin.
One of those was Jean Lefebvre, who worked for the firm as an engineer. Contacted at his home in Saint-Bruno, Que., Lefebvre said he was specifically asked to donate to the Liberal Party.
"We were given a bonus that was double the amount donated," he said.
He explained that the size of the bonus was intended to compensate him for the taxes he would have to pay on the bonus.
Lefebvre said he understood that the president of the company at the time, Jacques Lamarre, initiated the scheme and that the legal department at SNC-Lavalin had signed off.
"Normally, our legal advisers would be informed of the practice that the president wanted to put forward, which was to help political parties to receive donations despite the limits imposed on companies regarding political donations," Lefebvre said.
Despite the findings of the Commissioner of Canada Elections, only one person was charged. Normand Morin, a former SNC vice-president, was charged in May 2018. Last November, he pleaded guilty to violating two counts of the Canada Elections Act by "acting in collusion with certain senior officials of SNC-Lavalin" and for soliciting contributions "on behalf of federal political entities."
He received fines of $2,000. Three other charges were dropped.
That guilty plea avoided a trial that may have exposed more details of the SNC-Lavalin scheme.
In a phone interview, Morin said he did not know why he was the only one held responsible. "It's a mystery for me," he said.
Morin declined to name his contacts at the federal Liberal Party.
"It was many people," he said. "You should aim your investigation towards the parties."
Name included 'in error'
According to investigators with the Commissioner of Canada Elections, Pierre Anctil, a former SNC-Lavalin vice-president, was paid $4,462.88 by SNC-Lavalin as compensation for his donation to the Liberal Party of Canada on June 30, 2004.
Reached at his home in Westmount, on the island of Montreal, Anctil denied he had been compensated by SNC-Lavalin for that donation.
When shown a copy of the letter from the Commissioner of Canada Elections to the Liberal Party with the 18 names, Anctil said that his name was included "in error" and that he was never reimbursed.
In an affidavit in 2015 filed with the Charbonneau Commission, which was probing corruption in the Quebec construction industry, Anctil stated he knew the firm was running a similar political donation scheme at the provincial level. He said he was initially reluctant to get involved but went ahead after his boss, SNC-Lavalin president Jacques Lamarre, insisted.
Anctil said he was asked to solicit employees to make donations. Anctil said while he never received any of the bonuses personally, he told other employees they would get compensated by SNC-Lavalin if they asked.
Lamarre told CBC/Radio-Canada there was never any illegal funding scheme happening at SNC-Lavalin and that Anctil and others are mistaken.
Marylynne Campbell, a former senior vice-president at SNC-Lavalin who appears on the leaked list of names, also denied knowing about the scheme.
According to the elections commissioner, Campbell made improper donations of $5,000 to the federal Liberal Party in 2005, as well as $5,000 in 2006 to Bob Rae's Liberal leadership campaign. Campbell also donated $3,137.73 to the federal Conservative Party.
Reached by phone, Campbell said Morin had "pressured" her and others to make donations to Quebec and federal political parties. Still, Campbell said she told investigators when they interviewed her she did not receive any compensation from SNC-Lavalin.
All of the former SNC-Lavalin employees and spouses named in the list who spoke to The Fifth Estate/Enquête said they were not contacted by the Commissioner of Canada Elections to let them know their names were on the document.
Compliance agreements for 'minor' infractions
Ayotte said Canadians need to know more about why SNC-Lavalin was granted a compliance agreement that avoided any criminal charges.
He said the decision to lay charges against Del Mastro — and his cousin David Del Mastro, who was also charged in 2014 for using corporate money to compensate private election donations but was later acquitted — but not SNC-Lavalin may appear to be a double standard.
"Given the facts of [the SNC-Lavalin] case, it seems to be completely out of line with ... the way in which Elections Canada have treated other people in similar situations," Ayotte said.
According to an academic paper written in 2005 by David Brock, who would go on to become the chief electoral officer of the Northwest Territories, compliance agreements were not intended to be used for serious violations of the Canada Elections Act.
"The primary reason for enacting this new method of enforcement was to provide an alternative to prosecution, and thus deal more effectively with so-called 'minor" infractions of the Canada Elections Act," he wrote.
Still, the law allows the commissioner wide discretion as to when to offer a compliance agreement or when to prosecute.
The commissioner's own guidelines on whether to prosecute campaign violations state that investigators must consider how serious the offence was, whether it was part of a deliberate "scheme" or an isolated event and would a prosecution help "maintain public confidence in the electoral system."
The Commissioner of Canada Elections, Yves Côté, declined an interview request. His spokesperson, Michelle Laliberté, said the commissioner "conducted a thorough investigation using all of the tools that were available to him." She said the evidence gathered supported the laying of charges against Morin and that the reasons for the decision to offer a compliance agreement to SNC-Lavalin are stated publicly on the commissioner's website.
The Liberal Party's revenue chair, Stephen Bronfman, did not return voice messages left by CBC/Radio-Canada. Party spokesman Braeden Caley wrote in an email that "The Liberal Party of Canada fully complies with the Canada Elections Act and all Elections Canada regulations for fundraising and donations and expects all people donating to our party to do so lawfully and to follow the same rules."
Conservative Party spokesperson Cory Hann said his party "expect[s] people donating to the Conservative Party are doing so truthfully and by the letter of the law in accordance with Elections Canada rules and regulations, and the Elections Act."
Donations to Liberal Party by SNC employees, executives, spouses
Donations to Conservative Party of Canada by SNC employees, executives
With files from Madeline McNair, Mitchel Consky, Gillian Findlay and Lynette Fortune