Efforts to restart projects stalled by the Libyan civil war have enmeshed Canadian engineer SNC-Lavalin in controversy and apparently triggered the dismissal of two of its top executives.

On Feb. 9, the Montreal-based firm announced the dismissal related to "questions regarding the conduct" of two executives who have been "the focus of public attention." The company has not issued another statement or clarified how the two men’s efforts to assess and restart work on the Libyan projects may have violated company rules.

SNC-Lavalin announced that Riadh Ben Aissa, executive vice president of construction and infrastructure, and Stephane Roy, vice president-controller for that same group, were effectively no longer with the company.

In a reply released soon after the SNC-Lavalin announcement, Ben Aissa’s attorney denied that his client had been dismissed and said that his client had resigned. "The erroneous insinuations surrounding his decision to resign, intentionally conveyed by SNC-Lavalin, are causing direct harm to him and to his family,” the statement said.

The matter involves a contract, signed by Roy and Cynthia Vanier, a consultant from Ontario. She was hired and paid by SNC-Lavalin to assess the situation in Libya in the last days of the Qaddafi regime. Mexican police arrested Vanier last month, charging her and three accomplices with attempting to illegally smuggle Muammar el Qaddafi's son, Saadi, into Mexico. Vanier is being held in jail.

Last week, attorneys for SNC-Lavalin wrote to Vanier’s attorney, refusing to make any additional payments to Vanier and denying that she was authorized to work for the company.

SNC-Lavalin Declines Further Payment

"Our client denies owing any amount whatsoever," said Francois Fontaine, a Montreal-based attorney, in a letter dated Feb. 15. "SNC-Lavalin has never authorized any contracts or dealing 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.”

Fontaine added that SNC-Lavalin is reviewing payments made to Vanier in 2011 and reserves the right to reclaim any of the money.

The letter was attached to coverage of the controversy on the website of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

SNC-Lavalin had been involved in airport, water-supply and other infrastructure projects in Libya, but as the level of violence climbed last March the company had to evacuate about 4,500 foreign national employees.

The firm ranks at No. 10 on ENR’s list of the Top International Design Firms, with $1.67 billion in 2010 revenue from outside Canada.

A spokeswoman for SNC-Lavalin, Leslie Quinton, confirmed that Roy hired Vanier to conduct a fact-finding mission on the feasibility of the company resuming operations in Libya and that Vanier was paid for her services.

According to Quinton, Roy advised the company that Vanier had invited him to Mexico to discuss potential water treatment projects in Libya; however, he was met by someone else, who was arrested during the meeting. He explained to the arresting authorities the purpose of his visit.

"We understand that there was no charge placed against him nor, to our knowledge, is he under investigation now," Quinton said.