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Transactions with terrorists
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When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Lafarge, the French cement giant, gambled that it could continue to operate its new plant there. What happened next has sucked the company and former executives into an ugly scandal - and raised hard questions about whether the board, which includes Montreal billionaire Paul Desmarais Jr., should have known about payments to rebel and terrorist groups
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By PAUL WALDIE
  
  

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Saturday, June 23, 2018 – Page B6

PARIS -- A light rain fell as Paul Desmarais Jr. made his way to the police station in central Brussels. It was a chilly Wednesday morning less than two weeks before Christmas, and as he stepped inside the building at 202a Rue Royale, three federal officers were waiting.

Mr. Desmarais had arrived early, closely following the instructions he'd received from a Belgian judge who had ordered him to appear for questioning at 9 a.m. on Dec. 13, 2017. The officers wasted little time getting down to business and began the interview at 9:06 a.m. It would last 10 hours.

The Canadian billionaire, whose family empire stretches across insurance, media and energy, had never faced anything like this before. The judge's summons said he was wanted for questioning in connection with a criminal investigation into allegations of terrorism financing at LafargeHolcim, the Franco-Swiss cement giant that has been a Desmarais family holding since 2006.

Mr. Desmarais has been a Lafarge director for almost a decade. The Desmarais-controlled Power Corp. of Canada is also one of the company's largest shareholders through a Belgian firm it co-owns.

The allegations were stunning.

Police claimed that between 2011 and 2015 Lafarge channelled more than US$15-million to the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria in return for supplies and assurances they would not attack the company's new cement plant near Raqqa. Investigators say documents showed how Lafarge diverted cash to IS, al-Qaeda and other rebels through a web of 54 bank accounts, often disguising the payments as "donations" and using a pair of intermediaries, including a Syrian-Canadian consultant.

It is alleged that the relationship with IS became so formalized that the terrorists issued travel permits to Lafarge workers and introduced a 10-per-cent "tax" on the company. The allegations came to light in 2016, after a group of Syrians who had worked at the plant started posting on social media about how they had to run for their lives when IS ignored the arrangements and finally overran the plant.

The officers hammered away at Mr. Desmarais until 7 p.m. They asked him about the payments, how much he knew about the arrangements with IS and why the Lafarge board didn't intervene, according to a report of the questioning filed in court and reviewed by The Globe and Mail.

They wanted to know about his background, his investments, his business associates and his role as a director. Mr. Desmarais denied any knowledge of the payments or the association with IS. He said it was up to managers to run the business, not directors. "It's not from five [board] meetings a year that one can review every operation around the world," he said in French. "It's up to the management and the 90,000 employees, not the board."

He talked about how the company investigated the allegations, made changes to procedures and pushed out those involved. At one point, when police asked if he knew anything about allegations involving nine specific times the company came into contact with terrorists, he replied "No" each time.

Mr. Desmarais, 63, declined to respond to questions from The Globe about the police interview or the allegations. In a statement, he said directors learned about the allegations through media reports in 2016 and immediately conducted an internal investigation. "Over and above existing numerous control mechanisms that Lafarge had put in place, additional measures have been introduced since then to prevent the recurrence of such regrettable events, which we strongly condemn," he said. The board "had no reason to believe that such an important matter touching upon security and ethics would not be brought to its attention."

The police investigation is far from over, and other directors have been questioned as well. But the Lafarge case has already rippled through corporate board rooms around the world and set off alarm bells for companies operating in troubled regions. The probe has been relentless, with officers in France and Belgium raiding company offices, seizing thousands of documents and tapping personal telephones. So far, a panel of French judges has put eight former and current Lafarge executives, including two former CEOs, under formal investigation for terrorist financing and crimes against humanity, a first step toward criminal charges. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison. The judges have also summoned lawyers for Lafarge to a hearing on June 28 in Paris, and it has been widely reported in France that the company is expected to be put under formal investigation on the same changes, as well as war crimes.

"It's the first time that a company is brought before court on these legal charges," said MarieLaure Guislain, a lawyer at Sherpa, a Paris-based human rights organization that helped start the investigation by launching a legal complaint against the company in 2016 along with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. "It's time for us to recognize the implications of companies with nationals in war zones, and this is really something that could be a precedent."

Only a handful of companies have ever been charged with terrorist financing, and most of those cases involved smaller businesses, far less cash and terrorist groups that do not compare to IS.

For example, one of the biggest cases concerned a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International Inc. that was convicted of terrorist financing in the U.S. in 2003 after paying US$825,000 to Colombian paramilitary groups that had threatened Chiquita workers.

The Lafarge case also marks the first time anti-terrorism laws have been used to target a Western company for its alleged involvement in helping a group such as IS commit war crimes. "The Lafarge case is important because it shows that these things can happen when you are doing business with the wrong people in a war zone," said Mark Taylor, an international business law expert at the University of Oslo. "If you really are going to insist on maintaining operations in a war zone, you're going to actually have to do business with some very unsavoury characters, and that's going to put you in a position of real liability risk."

The Globe has reviewed hundreds of documents filed with the French judges, and the filings reveal the incredible lengths Lafarge went to in order to keep operating in Syria even as the civil war escalated and other companies pulled out. That included not only paying IS and other rebels, but also ending up in a business partnership with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

THE CORPORATE BACKGROUND Lafarge is no ordinary company.

It's a French icon with almost 200 years of history and a track record that includes building the Suez Canal. In 2015 it merged with Switzerland's Holcim in a US$50-billion deal that created the world's largest cement maker and caused a stir in France when the head office was moved from Paris to Zurich.

The company's board is stacked with billionaires and business elites from around the world, including Mr. Desmarais, whose well-connected family holds interests in blue-chip companies such as Canadian insurer Great-West Lifeco Inc., sportswear giant Adidas AG and French oil giant Total SA. The family has been investing abroad for decades

through Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, a partnership created in 1990 by Mr. Desmarais's father, Paul Sr., who died in 2013, and a friend, 92year-old Belgian businessman Albert Frère. The two families have about 52 per cent voting control of GBL, which has 19-billion ($29.4billion) worth of investments.

GBL began investing in Lafarge in 2006 and within two years acquired a 21-per-cent stake. That made it the largest single shareholder, and the firm received three seats on the company board: Paul Desmarais Jr., Mr.

Frère's son, Gérald, and GBL managing director Thierry de Rudder.

Mr. Desmarais proved to be an active board member. He frequently met with Lafarge chief executive Bruno Lafont in Paris, and every July Mr. Lafont would travel to Canada for a day of golf with Mr.

Desmarais. When the company was struggling to seal the merger with Holcim, documents show Mr. Desmarais invited a key Holcim executive, Dieter Spalti, to Canada for a fishing trip in July, 2014. After the merger, GBL's stake in LafargeHolcim fell to 9.4 per cent, but it was still the secondlargest shareholder and kept two board seats, filled by Mr. Desmarais and Gérard Lamarche, GBL's co-CEO. (Mr. Frère and Mr. de Rudder retired in 2012.)

Lafarge's foray into Syria predates the Holcim merger, going back to late 2007, when Mr. Lafont sealed an 8.8-billion deal to buy Egypt's Orascom Construction Industries Cement Group. Orascom dominated the cement business across the Middle East and Africa with 10 plants in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, South Africa and Turkey, as well as operations in Iraq and North Korea. Orascom was controlled by Nassef Sawiris, one of the wealthiest men in Egypt, and under the terms of the transaction Mr. Sawiris received an 11.4per-cent stake in Lafarge and a seat on the board.

Mr. Desmarais told police that at the time he didn't know much about Orascom but he and the other Lafarge directors backed the deal. Mr. Lafont hailed it in the media as a "decisive opportunity to accelerate our profitable growth strategy in cement in emerging markets."

THE SYRIAN OPPORTUNITY There was one Orascom project that didn't get much attention at the time: the company's plan to build a state-of-the-art plant in northern Syria. Mr. Sawiris had been eager to invest in Syria for a while, seeing it as a vast untapped market with a growing economy and no significant private players in the cement business. In 2006 he launched plans to build a US$680-million plant near Jalabiya, a desolate stretch of land about 100 kilometres northwest of Raqqa and not far from the Turkish border. It would be the biggest cement operation in Syria, producing three million tonnes a year and employing 250 people at the plant and another 90 at a generating station.

To get the plant built, Mr. Sawiris needed a local partner who could navigate the Syrian bureaucracy and win the backing of Mr.

al-Assad. There was no one better than Firas Tlass.

Mr. Tlass's family had been pillars of the country's ruling Baath Party. His father, Mustafa, was a long-time defence minister who'd helped both Hafez al-Assad and his son come to power. Mr. Tlass's brother, Manaf, was a brigadiergeneral in the Syrian army, and the family's business empire, run by Mr. Tlass's company, Min Ajl Suriya or MAS, had interests in everything from roasted coffee beans to dairy imports and construction.

Mr. Tlass agreed to become a partner in the Jalabiya project - at a price. He demanded a 1.3-percent ownership share with an option to acquire as much as 10 per cent, plus an annual payment of 1 per cent of the plant's annual revenue. Mr. Sawiris accepted, and construction began around the time Lafarge bought Orascom.

After the takeover, Mr. Sawiris was keen to show Lafarge executives Orascom's operations. He developed a particular connection with Mr. Desmarais. The two served on the advisory board of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York and met for dinner frequently in Paris and Switzerland. Mr. Desmarais invited Mr.

Sawiris and his family for a visit to Canada one summer.

In late January, 2010, Mr. Sawiris took Mr. Desmarais and Mr.

Lafont on a tour of the Jalabiya plant, which was nearing completion. They flew on Mr. Desmarais's private jet and got a look at the massive construction site, which he told police was buzzing with 500 construction workers, most of them from China. After a brief visit, the group headed to Damascus for a meeting with Mr. al-Assad. The President thanked them for investing in the country and spoke about his plans for a new railway to the Suez Canal in Egypt.

Later, during a dinner with government officials and local businessmen, Mr. Desmarais was introduced to Mr. Tlass and his brother. Mr. Desmarais was not impressed, later telling Belgian police during questioning that Manaf Tlass "looked crazy" and had long hair, unbefitting a real general. He added that he didn't remember much about his conversation with Mr. Tlass and never saw him again.

THE ARAB SPRING COMPLICATION The Syrian plant opened a few months later amid great fanfare.

Mr. Lafont was on hand along with Mr. Tlass and France's ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier.

Also at the opening was Bruno Pescheux, a Lafarge veteran who'd been put in charge of operating the facility. Everything seemed set, and Mr. Pescheux planned to have the plant running at full production by the end of the year.

Then the Arab Spring broke out.

By early 2011, the movement had swept across North Africa, toppling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and heading for Syria, where protests started in March.

The Assad government responded with a brutal crackdown, and within months armed opposition began taking root. That summer the European Union imposed stiff sanctions on Syria, and the United States called for Mr. al-Assad to step down. With civil war looming, most Western companies began leaving the country or selling their operations.

Lafarge decided to stay put.

Company managers took pride in the firm's long history of being able to operate almost anywhere in the world and were convinced they could ride out the turmoil in Syria. Besides, the plant seemed to be outside the conflict zones, and the EU sanctions did not include cement. The instructions to Mr. Pescheux were simple: Keep going.

The situation soon began to change. In early 2012, the civil war escalated. Kurdish militia forces defeated the Syrian army in nearby Aleppo, while another rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, took control of Manbij, a small city close to the plant where many Lafarge workers lived. By June the conflict was bad enough that Mr.

Pescheux relocated from Damascus to Egypt and evacuated about 135 foreign staff from the plant.

But he was still under instructions to keep the Syrian operation producing as much cement as possible with the remaining workers, who were mostly Syrian and Chinese. That was becoming ever more difficult.

Before the civil war, the plant relied on state companies for key supplies such as petroleum, coal and pozzolan, a type of volcanic ash that's prevalent in Syria and used to help cement bind. But with the northern territory now in the hands of anti-Assad forces, those supply lines had been cut.

Now Mr. Pescheux had to deal with local rebels who controlled almost all the sources of fuel, pozzolan and other supplies.

He had hired a security expert, a former intelligence officer from Norway named Jacob Waerness, who had moved into the plant in 2012 and began making contact with the Kurds and other groups.

The Kurds offered protection and supplies in exchange for cash but had a habit of stealing equipment and vehicles, including the company's lone ambulance. In an email to Christian Herrault, Lafarge's senior vice-president of operations, Mr. Pescheux described the situation as "a nightmare," adding that the Kurdish demands were "increasing all the time ... .

Now they want cement, they want power from us to feed their asphalt plant, they are coming back on the topic of taxes. We are trying to limit their appetite but extremely difficult," he wrote.

The chaos continued to mount.

Rebel groups began setting up checkpoints on almost every road, demanding bribes and harassing Lafarge workers. In August, 2012, the plant's human resources manager, Nidal Wahbi, was kidnapped in Manbij by five gunmen from a branch of the Free Syrian Army. The kidnappers demanded US$200,000, but Mr.

Waerness refused to pay, convinced it would only encourage more hostage-taking. Mr. Wahbi was held for three days. "They were about to kill me but before killing me they asked me how much money could I pay," he said in a statement filed with the French judges. He managed to come up with US$20,000 from relatives - just enough to buy his release. When he asked Lafarge for a reimbursement, the company turned him down. Two months later, nine workers were taken hostage while driving in a van near Raqqa. This time, Lafarge paid a US$200,000 ransom.

THE DEFECTION AND THE PAYMENTS With the violence increasing and supplies running thin, Mr. Pescheux turned to Mr. Tlass for help.

But his circumstances had changed.

The Syrian businessman had dramatically switched sides in 2012, defecting to the rebels along with his brother. Their father had also left Syria and moved to Paris, where he lived until his death in 2017. Mr. Tlass set up his company in Dubai and became a prominent financial backer of various rebel groups aligned with the West.

He agreed to help Mr. Pescheux - for a fee. Mr. Tlass had been receiving his 1-per-cent cut of the plant's annual revenue, but with production slowing because of the civil war, the payments had been reduced to almost nothing.

He wanted US$75,000 a month to act as an intermediary with the rebels. Mr. Pescheux didn't have much choice and accepted the terms. Mr. Tlass immediately went to work.

He drew up lists of groups that Lafarge needed to pay to get employees through checkpoints and secure supplies. In one e-mail, with the subject line "donations," he outlined specific amounts of cash to be paid to 18 groups ranging from the Kurdish Popular Protection Unit, or YPG, to the "Manbij council," "Euphrates Bridge checkpoint," "Aleppo people" and the Free Syrian Army. The list baffled Mr. Pescheux, who asked for clarification before paying the money.

Delivering the cash proved tricky too. Court filings show Mr. Pescheux didn't want company records to reveal details of the payments, so most were made through a personal account he'd set up. A Lafarge internal investigation conducted last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that the Syrian plant used 54 bank accounts across the Middle East to channel cash to Mr. Tlass through Mr. Pescheux's personal account "to protect the anonymity of the [Lafarge] staff member processing the transactions." Mr.

Pescheux told police that at one point Lafarge was paying as much as US$140,000 a month to rebels.

THE SYRIAN CANADIAN 'NUISANCE' In 2013 Mr. Pescheux came to rely on another intermediary, a Syrian-Canadian consultant named Amro Taleb.

Mr. Taleb, 36, had grown up in Syria and acquired Canadian citizenship through his parents when he was a teenager. He came to Canada for university, studying engineering at the University of Toronto and earning a couple of online degrees before returning to Syria in 2009 to teach. He also launched an environmental consulting company called Greenway Ecodevelopment and, shortly after landing in Syria, won a contract from Lafarge to help the Jalabiya plant earn its ISO 14001 designation for environmental management systems.

When the civil war broke out the ISO project became irrelevant and Mr. Pescheux wanted to cancel the contract, but Mr. Taleb suggested another arrangement.

He'd become well-connected to rebel groups in Raqqa, even claiming in one e-mail that he knew the Islamic military commanders in the city. Other documents indicate he also later had contacts with IS. "Please try to understand that ignoring these [people's] demands and not paying them ... will have major impact on the plant," he wrote in an e-mail to Lafarge managers.

With few options, Mr. Pescheux began relying on Mr. Taleb and his network. Documents filed in court show that two of his contacts - Ahmad Jamal and Mohammad al Taweel - received almost US$3-million for fuel, pozzolan and other supplies sourced from rebel groups. Mr. Taleb, the documents show, pocketed about US$219,930 in fees.

Mr. Pescheux soon had reservations about the Syrian-Canadian. In court filings he referred to Mr. Taleb as "a nuisance" and said he stopped paying him, arguing he had misrepresented his position to the rebels. Mr. Taleb complained to senior executives about Mr. Pescheux, claiming he had put the plant's safety in jeopardy by not paying him to continue working with the rebels.

In an interview from his office in Dubai, Mr. Taleb insisted that he only brokered deals with Kurds and groups not designated as terrorists by the West. "I stopped the communications with these specific individuals especially [when] they are already listed by the U.S. coalition. And myself I am an advisory for them in the fight against ISIS," he said.

He added that he once passed on a message he'd received from a contact within IS but gave all the information to Canadian, French and U.S. officials. And he said Lafarge still owed him money.

THE STORMING OF THE PLANT By 2014, the plant's security became more perilous. The Kurds had been beaten back in Raqqa by the al-Nusra Front, a rebel umbrella group linked to al-Qaeda. IS had also emerged as a violent offshoot of al-Nusra in Iraq, and the extremists began moving across northern Iraq and into Syria. Within a few months, IS declared its caliphate and took Raqqa from al-Nusra.

For Lafarge workers, life became a daily struggle for survival.

"We were always in danger," one former plant engineer said in a statement filed with the judges.

"On the road to the plant there were daily kidnappings and shots fired on our cars. ... I always lived in fear to be killed or kidnapped."

Mr. Pescheaux quickly turned his attention to IS. While the Kurds still controlled much of the area around the plant, the rise of IS in Raqqa and elsewhere posed a serious challenge. He soon began authorizing payments of as much as US$20,000 a month to IS fighters to get Lafarge workers through checkpoints, documents show. In April, 2014, one IS affiliate printed permits for Lafarge workers.

"Kindly allow the employees of Lafarge Cement Syria to pass after the needed check since they have paid their dues to us," read the permit from the IS "treasury ministry," which ended: "May Allah reward you well."

And then, in a bizarre twist, Lafarge became a business partner with the Assad regime.

The Syrian government retaliated against Mr. Tlass for his defection and seized his 1.3-per-cent ownership stake in the plant. Lafarge was now in the strange situation of being in a partnership with the Assad government even while the company was channelling money to rebels fighting the regime. The relationship raised difficult legal issues, given that international sanctions prohibited companies from doing business with the Assad regime, not to mention providing money

to IS. Documents show that company lawyers raised concerns about the ownership change, but there was little they could do. Mr.

Tlass also claimed in court filings that he'd transferred the holding to a relative, somehow shielding it from the regime's takeover.

By the summer of 2014, relations between the plant and IS reached a breaking point, and Mr. Pescheux shut down operations in July. He asked Mr. Tlass to broker a deal and he managed to reach an agreement within a few weeks. The deal included paying IS US$67,000 and covering a 10-per-cent tax the group forced suppliers to pay on all shipments in and out of the plant. The amount brought the total payments to IS from Lafarge to more than US$500,000 since November, 2013, according to calculations filed by PWC in court.

Mr. Tlass had been paid well, too. Documents show he received a total of US$5.4-million from July, 2012, to August, 2014.

When contacted by The Globe, Mr. Tlass, 57, declined to comment on the Lafarge case. His sister has told French police that her brother did nothing wrong.

Mr. Pescheux was transferred to another Lafarge subsidiary in Africa that summer, and his replacement, Frédéric Jolibois, felt confident enough to resume operations in August. But the resumption of work didn't last long.

Fighting between IS and the Kurds intensified, and in September IS made a final push, defeating the Kurds across the region and bombing their stronghold of Kobani, just 50 kilometres from the plant. On Sept. 19, IS overran the Kurds entirely and stormed the facility. The remaining Lafarge workers scrambled to get away. Lafarge was supposed to have drafted an evacuation plan that included buses and other escape vehicles. But the plan wasn't put in place, and the only advice the workers received was to hide in the plant's cement tunnels.

"I was there one hour before IS arrived," former worker Jarir Yahyaalmullaali, 34, said in a statement to the court. He managed to escape thanks to a nearby food seller who lent him a car. "If I had run away one hour later I would not be able to play with my daughter today. Daesh would have cut our heads. ... I cannot believe that I worked six years for Lafarge and they could not give us cars to leave the plant. But this guy did."

Over the next few weeks, IS fighters sold off the remaining cement and burned down most of the buildings. A year later, Lafarge wrote off its investment when the company merged with Holcim. Some former plant employees remained angry about being left so vulnerable and started expressing their resentment on social media. Their posts were picked up by French media, and in 2016 the newspaper Le Monde began a series of articles on Lafarge's dealings with IS. That led to the legal action by Sherpa, a complaint by the French business ministry and the criminal investigation.

THE INTERNAL INVESTIGATION Mr. Desmarais told police he was shocked by the allegations in news reports and immediately called the company's co-chair, Beat Hess. Mr. Desmarais was worried about the reputational risk to the company and himself, he told police. The board ordered an internal investigation code named "Project Alpha" and hired consultants Baker McKenzie and PWC to carry out the probe. They reported to Mr. Lamarche, GBL's co-chief executive, who headed the board's audit committee.

In late February, 2017, Mr. Desmarais was on a ski holiday in St.

Moritz in Switzerland when Mr.

Hess, Mr. Lamarche and Ryan Fayhee, a Baker McKenzie partner, arrived to give him an update on the investigation. The conclusions were damning. Baker McKenzie and PWC had uncovered US$15.5-million worth of payments to "armed groups" and indications that some of the money went to IS. The investigation exonerated the directors but raised questions about the conduct of several executives. That included Mr. Lafont, who stepped down as CEO after the Holcim merger but remained as co-chairman, and his replacement as CEO, Eric Olsen. The report alleged that both knew what was going on in Syria but failed to take action.

Mr. Desmarais said he wanted the conclusions presented at a full board meeting on March 1, but other directors resisted, including Mr. Sawiris. They felt Baker McKenzie had been too quick to judge and they questioned some of the conclusions.

Mr. Desmarais and Mr. Lamarche stood firm and threatened to resign if the investigation wasn't discussed. The others relented, the board went through the report as planned, and a summary was released publicly.

Mr. Desmarais told police that by the time of the March meeting, most directors had lost confidence in Mr. Lafont and Mr. Olsen. Several documents indicated that both had received regular reports about the situation in Syria and the dealings with IS and other groups. Other documents suggested Mr. Lafont had also held two meetings with Mr. Tlass and Mr. Sawiris in September, 2014, although it wasn't clear what they discussed.

Both Mr. Lafont and Mr. Olsen resigned within weeks of the Baker McKenzie report. They did not go quietly, vigorously denying any wrongdoing and raising questions about the board's role in the scandal. Mr. Lafont has insisted that he was never made aware of payments to IS or other terrorists. He added that he kept directors informed of the problems in Syria by providing a summary at each board meeting.

Mr. Olsen, an American who once ran Lafarge's Montreal operation, criticized the board's handling of the probe, suggesting that there was an apparent conflict of interest given that directors had a role overseeing the company but the investigation only focused on managers. "I was the target of Gérard Lamarche and Beat Hess, for reasons that I still do not know," he told the French judges during questioning in court this year. He added that Mr. Sawiris was one of the few directors to support him and that the Egyptian warned him about becoming a target of the probe. After battling for his job during three board meetings, Mr.

Olsen said he decided to resign.

"I didn't want to work for people like that anymore," he told the judges.

Mr. Lafont and Mr. Olsen have both been put under formal investigation along with six other former executives, including Mr.

Pescheux and Mr. Jolibois. Mr.

Pescheux left the company last year. During police questioning he has defended his actions, saying he kept his superiors well aware of what he was doing and that he was under orders to keep the plant operating. "I carried out my duties," he told police, adding that he had no apologies for his actions "because none of my employees were killed."

As the police investigation intensifies, there's also growing angst at GBL. Reports of police wire taps show executives fretting about possible criminal charges and plotting strategy with lawyers. Some worried that Mr. Desmarais "talks too much," and in one call Gérald Frère told his wife that he feared being betrayed by other GBL executives.

He also expressed anger that his father didn't seem to care about the plight of his son.

THE AFTERMATH Lafarge hasn't given up on Syria.

The plant was retaken by the Kurds and Western-backed forces in 2016, and IS was run out of Raqqa last year. Documents filed in court show Lafarge has been lobbying French foreign affairs officials for access to the site and reminding all allied forces that the plant still belongs to the company. In November, 2015, the company even signed an agreement with the Kobani government to help rebuild the city with Lafarge concrete.

Mr. Desmarais was re-elected to the LafargeHolcim board during the annual meeting in May, and the company has been eager to leave the scandal behind. Mr.

Hess told the meeting that Lafarge is co-operating with the criminal investigation and has made several changes to the company's governance and operations. He added: "We absolutely regret the events in Syria and condemn them."

Mr. Desmarais took a more personal tone with police. When the officers came to the end of their questioning, one of them asked him if he had anything to add. "Yes," he replied. He told them about the FLQ and how his family had been targets of the Quebec terrorist group in the 1970s, forcing him to attend university with body guards. He talked about owning the Montreal newspaper La Presse and how he ordered increased security after the attack on the French publication Charlie Hebdo in 2015.

And he described his support for Canadian soldiers fighting terrorism in Afghanistan.

"So you can see that my fight against terrorism is real," he told the officers. "My tolerance is zero."

PAUL DESMARAIS JR.

The Quebec billionaire has been a director of Lafarge- Holcim for nearly a decade and a long-time major shareholder through a Belgian firm. He says the board knew nothing about $15-million in payments to IS and other Syrian rebels.

BRUNO LAFONT

The former CEO of Lafarge- Holcim spent more than 30 years at the company before resigning as co-chair in 2017. He's under criminal investigation in France for terrorist financing, but denies any wrongdoing and says he's being made a scapegoat.

ERIC OLSEN

An American, he cut his teeth at Lafarge running the Canadian operations in Montreal where he met his wife. He took over as CEO after Mr. Lafont in 2015, but resigned last year and is also under criminal investigation in France. He's denied any wrongdoing and lashed out at directors.

BRUNO PESCHEUX

The director of Lafarge's Syrian subsidiary between 2008 and July of 2014, he's acknowledged paying rebel groups. He says his superiors never told him to stop because they wanted the plant to keep operating.

FIRAS TLASS

A Syrian businessman who was a part owner of the Lafarge plant in Syria. He was once a close ally of President Bashar al- Assad, but defected to the rebels in 2012 and became a critical go-between for Lafarge and rebel groups including IS.

Associated Graphic

A Lafarge subcontractor points to the Jalabiya cement plant in the distance in northern Syria in February.

DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

PAUL WALDIE AND JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL SOURCES: SHERPA; LE PARISIEN; GOOGLE MAPS

GOOGLE MAPS

This general view shows the entrance to the headquarters of French cement producer Lafarge in Paris in November, 2017, where a search is reported to be under way.

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES


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