At first it looked like the Tunisian-Canadian wheeler and dealer Riadh Ben Aissa was going to have a long and fruitful career as a businessman in Newfoundland and Labrador, but it was ultimately not to be.
Fruitful his company’s activities were, for sure, for much of the time that he was one of two directors (along with the now-late SNC-Lavalin engineer Elwood J. Reid) of BAE-SNC Ltd., a “local” company registered in Mount Pearl that was listed as having been incorporated with share capital in 1991. From that time until it was dissolved by its parent company in 2008, BAE-SNC was involved in various ways in the biggest financial mega-projects on the go in Newfoundland and Labrador.
For example, it helped win the lucrative engineering, procurement and construction management contract for the mine, concentrator and other facilities at Voisey’s Bay, Labrador, and it laid the groundwork for securing an even bigger prize: the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project.
That was partially done through the establishment of Innu-SNC Lavalin Corporation in 2008, a partnership formed with four listed directors: two SNC-Lavalin vice-presidents, Albert Williams and Steve Lindley, and two Innu politicians, Prote Poker and Anastasia Qupee — the latter two who would soon afterwards act in their political roles to sign the controversial New Dawn agreement on behalf of the Innu people, an agreement that ultimately resulted in SNC-Lavalin getting the rich engineering, procurement and construction management contract for the two or three hydro dams planned for Muskrat Falls.
With BAE-SNC being such a success under his directorship, Ben Aissa’s future as a driving force in the province’s mega-project economy would seem to have been assured, but when his Mount Pearl company was dissolved his official influence vanished, as well.
By then, however, his co-director had moved on across the corporate latticework, and most of BAE-SNC’s functions were assumed by the closely related SNC-Lavalin subsidiary called BAE-Newplan Group Ltd., where Elwood Reid spent much of his time collaborating with SNC-Lavalin’s Lower Churchill project director, vice-president François Couturier, “on the proposal and then on the startup of the project.”
Maybe if Ben Aissa had spent more time in the province he could have stayed as closely involved and cemented his place in Newfoundland’s business elite and even gotten a seat on a chamber of commerce somewhere, but it seems he was so extraordinarily busy elsewhere scaring up more business for SNC-Lavalin around the world that he had no more time for SNC-Lavalin’s affairs in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Ben Aissa’s involvement through BAE-SNC in developments at Voisey’s Bay and Muskrat Falls did not become widely known until the political gadfly known as Brad Cabana recently released the results of research he’s been conducting in the provincial government’s registry of deeds and companies, but Ben Aissa’s various other worldwide business dealings had already become public knowledge when SNC-Lavalin’s Tunisian-based executive vice-president of infrastructure, water, geotechnical and laboratories, construction and defence contractors was arrested and jailed in Switzerland last year as part of an investigation into money laundering, fraud and corruption in several North African countries.
Investigations into allegations of improper payments connected to Ben Aissa’s actions on behalf of SNC-Lavalin so far involve projects in Libya, Algeria, Angola, Pakistan, Quebec and now, quite possibly, Newfoundland and Labrador — at least, Cabana reports that the RCMP logged onto his blogsite less than half an hour after he posted the information he’d gleaned about Ben Aissa’s Mount Pearl company, so if the police didn’t know about the once-lauded but now discredited SNC-Lavalin executive’s possible involvement in the multi-billion-dollar Voisey’s Bay and Muskrat Falls contracts, they do now.
What is sure is that if the RCMP isn’t investigating this situation, it should be — if only to make sure no public officials in Newfoundland and Labrador were receiving any illegal payments.
However, someone should also be investigating these clear indications that Poker and Qupee were in a conflict of interest, signing political agreements that will enrich them financially because of private business partnerships. Did they negotiate to benefit their people, or themselves?
A call made to the RCMP’s major crime section to ask if any investigations into these matters are underway was not returned.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.