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Quebec Premier Francois Legault says he wants the federal government to settle with engineering firm SNC-Lavalin "as soon as possible" in order to protect jobs and the company's corporate headquarters in Montreal.
The embattled firm is vulnerable to a foreign takeover, Legault told reporters Thursday in Quebec City. And the longer its legal troubles drag on, the greater the chance it could fall prey to another company, he said.
"I want to do all we can do to protect this headquarters and protect the thousands of good, well-paying jobs we have at SNC-Lavalin."
The company has been lobbying the federal government for a remediation agreement to avoid a criminal trial on charges of bribery and fraud related to its efforts to secure government contracts in Libya.
Under a remediation agreement the prosecution would be dropped in exchange for SNC-Lavalin admitting its wrongdoing and paying a financial penalty. The Globe and Mail newspaper reported last week that the Prime Minister's Office pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to agree to such an agreement.
Legault said SNC should pay for its alleged crimes, but its employees and the province's economy shouldn't suffer as a result.
"We know that SNC-Lavalin, that they didn't follow legal rules — in Libya especially — and they have to pay for that, especially the people that were involved," he said. "SNC-Lavalin, I met the president, they are ready to put on the table very large amounts of penalty."
Without a settlement, he added, the case could drag on for years and SNC-Lavalin's business would suffer.
SNC-Lavalin had its debt rating downgraded Wednesday by Standard & Poor's. The agency cited the criminal charges against the engineering and construction giant and the 10-year ban from bidding on federal contracts that would accompany a conviction among its reasons for the downgrade.
Legault said the firm's legal woes are bad for the province. "Right now there is no controlling shareholder, so there's a real risk that this company could be bought by somebody, for example from the U.K. For me, it would be bad news for Quebec," he said.
He said that in discussions with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau he has asked, "Can you settle as soon as possible in order that we keep those jobs? We need those jobs."
Added to the company's troubles is news this week that Quebec prosecutors are working with the RCMP on the possibility of new criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin, in connection with a contract to refurbish Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge.
While Legault had plenty to say about the federal charges, he stayed away from commenting on the provincial allegations. "I have no intention of doing (anything) with what's happening in Quebec jurisdiction," he said.