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World Bank’s appeal over SNC-Lavalin to be heard by Supreme Court

A battle over whether the World Bank can be forced to produce its files on the bribery probe in Bangladesh that later resulted in Canadian criminal charges against three former SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. employees is going to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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A battle over whether the World Bank can be forced to produce its files on the bribery probe in Bangladesh that later resulted in Canadian criminal charges against three former SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. employees is going to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Washington, D.C.-based World Bank is challenging an Ontario Superior Court decision that ordered it to produce documents related to its investigation of bribery allegations around a multibillion-dollar project to build a bridge in Bangladesh.

The Supreme Court of Canada announced on Thursday that it would hear the case. A date has not been set.

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It's the latest twist in the corruption allegations that for years have swirled around Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin, Canada's largest engineering firm, which also faces separate RCMP charges related to allegations that $47.7-million in bribes were paid to win contracts in Libya under the regime of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Starting in 2010, the World Bank conducted its own investigation into allegations around a bid by SNC-Lavalin for a $10-million contract to manage the construction of Bangladesh's multibillion-dollar Padma Bridge project, which was being financed by the World Bank.

In 2011, the World Bank brought those allegations, including information from four unnamed "tipsters," to the RCMP. Based solely on this information, the Mounties obtained permission to wiretap conversations. The RCMP then raided SNC-Lavalin's Oakville, Ont., offices in September, 2011.

In 2012, the RCMP laid bribery charges against two now former SNC-Lavalin employees: Mohammad Ismail, the company's former director of international projects, and his boss Ramesh Shah, a former vice-president of SNC's international division.

In 2013, it added charges against Kevin Wallace, who was SNC's vice-president of energy and infrastructure, and Zulfiquar Bhuiyan, a businessman with dual Canadian-Bangladeshi citizenship who was not an SNC employee but who is alleged to have been a representative of a senior Bangladeshi official, Abdul Chowdhury.

In court last year, lawyers for the men demanded that the World Bank hand over all of its files related to the case, including those the RCMP relied upon to secure its wiretaps. Production of these kinds of documents would be not be unusual in a routine domestic criminal case, to allow the defence to scrutinize a police investigation for using unreliable witnesses, such as those with an axe to grind, or for relying on flimsy information.

But the World Bank refused to participate in the court hearing on the issue, insisting that its status as an international organization grants it immunity and that it could not be compelled to turn over any documents.

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In a decision issued last December, Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer sided with the accused, ruling that the World Bank had waived the immunity it would have been afforded under Canadian law by actively participating in the RCMP's criminal investigation.

Alan Lenczner, a Toronto lawyer acting for the World Bank in its Supreme Court challenge, said in an e-mail that the bank is concerned about preserving the anonymity of informants in anti-corruption probes, particularly in countries where whistle-blowers are more likely to face reprisals: "For the World Bank, one of its main tools in combatting bribery of foreign officials is the information it receives from lower-ranking officials that their bosses are being paid to award contracts to companies."

Justice Nordheimer addresses this issue in his December ruling, saying that Canadian law already protects sensitive police sources and noting that two of the World Bank's four tipsters had already been deemed confidential informants in court.

Lawyers for the accused contacted by The Globe and Mail declined to comment publicly in detail on the case, as it is before the courts.

In a written submission to the Supreme Court, Toronto criminal defence lawyer Frank Addario, who is acting for Mr. Bhuiyan, accused the World Bank of showing disrespect to Canada's court system: "This case is about an unhappy litigant seeking another kick at the can, after opting out of the hearing below. Regardless of whether leave is granted, [the World Bank] is likely to do whatever it wants. It will only comply with a court order that suits it."

Last fall, Bangladesh's anti-corruption commission dropped its allegations related the bridge project, saying it had not received enough information from the World Bank and Canadian authorities to proceed, according to local media reports.

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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