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SNC-Lavalin staff used rival consortium's plans to alter their own designs

MONTREAL - A senior SNC-Lavalin engineer says he felt pressure from his superiors in 2009 to cheat and use a rival consortium's designs to alter his own company's plan for Montreal's $1.3-billion superhospital project.

Charles Chebl, a current SNC-Lavalin executive, told the Charbonneau Commission on Thursday he felt he had little choice when his bosses insisted on the changes.

His immediate superior at the time showed him illegally obtained copies of the plans of the rival consortium headed by OHL Construction.

It was just one example in a series of violations Chebl admitted occurred throughout the awarding process. Confidentiality rules, cheating and illegal communications marred the scandal-plagued deal, the inquiry heard.

Chebl pinned the blame directly on his then-bosses — his immediate superior, ex-vice president Riyadh Ben Aissa, and ex-SNC-Lavalin president Pierre Duhaime.

Both men are facing fraud charges in the awarding of the contract.

The two are among eight people charged in connection with alleged fraud of $22.5 million. The SNC officials stand accused of bribing McGill University Health Centre executive Yanai Elbaz and ex-hospital boss Arthur Porter to secure the lucrative contract, with money being funnelled through offshore shell companies.

Chebl said he felt he had no choice but to use the rival drawings. He also said decisions made in the file were co-ordinated by Duhaime or Ben Aissa.

The corruption inquiry had a different take: co-chair Renaud Lachance questioned the behaviour throughout SNC-Lavalin after Chebl admitted to violation after violation of the rules and procedures governing the hospital contract.

"Doesn't this raise an organizational culture problem at SNC-Lavalin?" asked Lachance."Here, we know that everyone is cheating ... it's the entire management, not just the two you mentioned, but you also."

Chebl took issue with that assertion, saying SNC-Lavalin as a whole was not at fault, but rather just Duhaime and Ben Aissa. Confronted with questions about shouldering some of the blame, Chebl said the decisions were "imposed" on him.

The inquiry also heard Chebl admit that SNC officials often had direct contact with McGill counterparts during the bidding process. That was prohibited under the rules of the public-private partnership tendering process.

In December 2009, before the contract had officially been awarded by the government oversight body, Chebl had already started discussions with McGill authorities on specifics. He said his bosses wanted the file pushed forward and a McGill official had said it was a done deal.

The contract had been sent back for a second look by the government, which wasn't satisfied with costs. Chebl said Ben Aissa asked him to set up a meeting between Ben Aissa and OHL Construction head Miguel Fraile Delgado in January 2010, even though it also wasn't permitted.

Chebl said he only learned during Fraile's testimony at the commission Wednesday that the meeting was aimed at pressuring OHL to step aside.

In April 2010, the SNC-Lavalin-led consortium officially won the superhospital contract, which is one of Canada's most expensive public works projects.

Trying to minimize his role only drew Chebl criticism from the commissioners. Lachance noted that he was promoted in 2012.

"You were appointed vice-president after you consciously cheated in the awarding of such an important contract," Lachance said.

"Instead of sanctioning you — which could have been done in different ways — they gave you a promotion and we know that you cheated on this file."

Chebl remained steadfast.

"I invite you to consult my resume," Chebl replied, having noted that he worked on several major projects around the world.

Later, under fire again, Chebl insisted the company had changed.

"You know that SNC-Lavalin has changed, we have new rules and the people who acted against the company are no longer there," Chebl said.

That prompted commission president France Charbonneau to shoot back, "But you're still there."

Earlier, Chebl said he was ill at ease when Ben Aissa first presented him with the drawings.

"When I had access to these drawings, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it," Chebl said.

In earlier testimony Thursday, engineer Yves Gauthier, who reported to Chebl, said he was ordered to change elements of the SNC-Lavalin proposal to reflect the OHL one. It was deemed technically better and the one the McGill hospital officials wanted.

Gauthier said he received copies of the privileged information from Chebl, who in turn said he was first shown the documents by Ben Aissa. The documents were emailed to Chebl by Elbaz.

Gauthier said the cheating made him feel uncomfortable but he did as he was asked by Chebl.

He also testified he went to Quebec provincial police in 2012 after learning of the alleged fraud.

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