Politics

How a Federal Agency Helps Finance Some of the World's Most Corrupt Regimes

Export Development Canada has perfected the art of lending billions of taxpayer dollars to scandal-ridden foreign buyers. But its transparency could use some work

BY

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault


In May 2017, a trove of hundreds of thousands of emails was leaked to the press from an organization belonging to the Gupta family. Originally from India, the Guptas—three brothers named Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh—arrived in South Africa in the 1990s, ­shortly after the fall of the apartheid regime. Businessmen with an ­interest in every sector of the economy, the brothers began ­arrogating themselves into the homes and offices of the new ruling class. Their luck tracked closely with that of Jacob Zuma, who, before ­becoming ­president in 2009, weathered a dismissal from government, a rape trial, and 783 corruption charges. For years, journalists reported that the Guptas, along with members of Zuma’s family, ran a syndicate that siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars from government institutions into ­offshore shells. An opposition leader devised the word “Zupta” to describe the union between the two clans.

Like the Panama and Paradise Papers, the leaked emails offered a ­kaleidoscopic view of the universe inhabited by the super rich, who live by a bespoke set of financial rules all but unimaginable to the rest of us. Corruption had been a feature of governance in South Africa since colonial times, but the looting and influence peddling on display were nonetheless impressive. ­According to the emails, the brothers paid for a lavish wedding for their niece in 2013 with $8 million taken from a state-backed dairy scheme meant for impoverished farmers. KPMG, an auditing firm based in the United Kingdom, helped the family write off the party as a business expense and has admitted to ignoring red flags about the source of the wedding funds. Last September, KPMG ­announced the resignations of eight top executives in its South Africa office. ­Several other multinationals financially linked to the Guptas have been either badly ­tainted or destroyed by the fallout of the leaks. In October, in the British House of Lords, peer Peter Hain condemned megabanks, including HSBC and Standard Chartered, for overlooking their own suspicious transactions related to Gupta-owned businesses.

But long before the emails leaked, the brothers were already infamous for their outsized influence over Zuma—a process now referred to as “state capture.” Their niece’s opulent nuptials generated headlines across the world, mostly because the Guptas managed to get permission to use a military base as a landing site for hundreds of wedding guests, bypassing the usual immigration controls. The media attention had immediate and important legal implications: it rendered the ­Guptas “politically exposed,” a term used to describe entities with a potentially corrupting influence over government officials. Political exposure typically sets off alarm bells in banks, auditing firms, and other financial institutions—it should have rendered the Guptas toxic. Yet that never happened.

Indeed, their money was especially welcome in two Canadian corporate headquarters, one in Montreal, the other in Ottawa. In a lengthy email thread strung out over the course of 2014, it was revealed that Bombardier had negotiated the sale of a luxury jet to a subsidiary of the ­Guptas’ umbrella firm, Oakbay Investments. The new aircraft came outfitted with dark wood panelling, a gold swoosh along the ­fuselage, and a $52 million price tag. For anyone with even a cursory interest in corporate news, Bombardier’s involvement with the Guptas would not have come as a surprise. In recent years, the struggling Montreal-based plane and train company has been accused of sacrificing due diligence in the haste to make a sale. What might have been surprising was this: $41 million of the jet’s financing was provided directly to the Guptas by Export Development Canada, a Crown corporation owned by, well, you.

EDC’s mandate is simple and ostensibly unobjectionable. Since its establishment in 1944, it has served as an export credit agency that uses federal money to ­facilitate trade deals abroad deemed in the ­national interest. (It recently opened an office in London, England, to help Canadian companies shore up exports ahead of the UK brexiting the European Union.) In other words, it is a ­public institution that provides financing to the private sector and plays matchmaker for Canadian manufacturers looking for business relationships in other countries. Often, this means loaning foreign customers money to buy Canadian goods, hence the Gupta deal. Around 7,100 companies benefited from EDC’s largesse in 2016. In theory, there is nothing unusual about EDC—almost every country with a functioning economy has an equivalent.

But EDC is hardly ordinary. For one thing, the agency is massive—its transactions in 2016 amounted to more than $100 ­billion, almost twenty times as much as its American counterpart, the Export–Import Bank. Depending on the year, it ranks as the second or third largest such institution in the world, some distance behind China’s export credit agency but neck in neck with Japan’s. According to its own estimates, EDC—traditionally a major backer of the mining and oil-and-gas industries—helps generate about 5 percent of Canada’s gross domestic product, ­making it a significant, if not an indispensable, player in the national economy.

The jet deal, however, serves as an example of how EDC can inhabit a grey zone between facilitating Canadian ­businesses and financing corruption. Before the ­Guptas began negotiating with EDC, they had been turned down for loans from two big multinational lenders. EDC was far more eager to help the Guptas, but it still planned on sending one or two investigators to South Africa prior to locking in the loan. Whether or not it dispatched a team remains unclear, but it seems impossible that any investigators would have missed signs of the ­Guptas’ political exposure, either on the ground in Johannesburg or on Google in Ottawa. ­According to its published list of regulations, EDC must assess profiles of companies or individuals who present risks for reasons including “being named on ­official lists, such as terrorism, corruption, or sanctions lists, being identified as politically exposed, being investigated, charged or convicted for illegal activities, being subject to allegations of wrongdoing or being subject to adverse media.” In late 2014, the Guptas qualified on at least three counts.

EDC has never taken an official position regarding the Gupta revelations in the leaks, other than to say that all transactions undergo a rigorous vetting process. But the agency’s silence and inaction were not shared by the global banking sector. As of this writing, South Africa’s big four banks have dumped the Guptas as clients, ­Standard Chartered stopped dealing with them in Dubai, and HSBC shut down accounts held by front companies associated with the brothers. India’s Bank of Baroda is attempting to shutter their accounts, while the Johannesburg Stock Exchange successfully pushed Oakbay to delist itself.

But the Guptas are not EDC’s only controversial clients. The agency’s client list is studded with some of the most ­scandal-ridden multinationals on the planet, including Kinross Gold—its West ­African mining operations were, as of 2016, under investigation by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission for bribery and corruption. Despite ­being backstopped by the government, EDC has consistently rebuffed any requests to reveal details on its lending practices. And while the Gupta deal suggests there is almost no entity that EDC won’t bank, its activities are protected by disclosure protocols that are entirely opaque. EDC is effectively a black box, with the result that few in ­Canada—including the minister presiding over it—seem to know the full details about what the agency does, who it finances, and why. With EDC’s mandate up for review in 2018, it seems like a good time to examine the considerable reputational risks the agency often takes. Do Canadians want to be shareholders in a government agency that puts profit ahead of accountability?

Export Development Canada inhabits an eighteen-storey building in the heart of downtown Ottawa. The headquarters is an amalgam of marble and glass, a design best described as ­ostentatiously inconspicuous. During a recent stroll through the atrium, a salon of flat screens played corporate videos profiling an array of EDC clients: high-end bicycle manufacturer Argon 18, Cirque du Soleil–style equestrian troop Cavalia.

One late summer day this past August, I met with an EDC spokesperson named Phil Taylor at a Starbucks a few paces from company headquarters. Still on holiday, Taylor arrived in a T-shirt, board shorts, and sandals. Several weeks before our meeting, I’d contacted the agency to understand how their due diligence procedures failed to red flag the Gupta loan.

“I ­appreciate that you would have preferred that we be able to make comment about the ­specific transaction,” Taylor had written, “and that you were frustrated that the law does not allow EDC to disclose third party information without the consent of the obligor.”

Put plainly, without the Guptas consenting to the disclosure, EDC was legally prohibited from discussing the transaction. While EDC has been subject to the ­Access to Information Act since 2007, there is an exemption in the Export Development Act—the piece of legislation under which the agency is mandated—that basically treats any information pertaining to a client, and any documentation that may have been filed during or after the due diligence process, as confidential. The reason for this is simple: it’s good for business. In 2006, Rob Wright, at the time president and CEO of EDC, spoke to a legislative committee about the agency’s need for confidentiality. “It’s essential,” he said, that EDC “protect commercially confidential client information from release.” Wright argued that EDC’s partnerships abroad would be endangered if the agency couldn’t guarantee that sensitive financial information would be kept under wraps. “In fact,” he continued, “we are regularly asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and to confirm that the information is not subject to the Access to Information Act.” The loophole in the law that today exempts EDC and its clients from meaningful outside scrutiny was now protecting one of the most politically exposed families on earth.

This Möbius strip logic is what activists have long complained about when it comes to EDC. “Their transparency policy is just eighteen pages that spends more time explaining what they can’t disclose than what they can,” Claire Woodside, the director of the NGO Publish What You Pay, told me. Woodside’s organization is the Canadian branch of an international network that has been trying to increase the rate of corporate disclosure, which is why they’ve been drawn into EDC’s orbit. In 2009, EDC used loopholes in the Access to Information Act to hide details about its possible role in a controversial mega-dam scheme in Chile. In 2006, a consortium of Canadian investors purchased Transelec, Chile’s major transmission utility. Their plan was to connect five remote dams to thousands of high-voltage towers that would cut across a vast swath of environmentally fragile land, including national parks and protected reserves. When Probe ­International, a Canadian environmental advocacy group, requested details about EDC’s involvement in Transelec—according to the agency’s documents, they ­financed the utility company at least twice in 2007—only thirty-four out of 2,500 pages were released by EDC. Those documents were so heavily redacted that, according to Probe International executive director Patricia Adams, they left “nothing useful to inform the public about EDC’s use of the Crown’s credit card in ways that could harm Chile’s environment.” (Because of dwindling public support, Chile decided to rescind the project’s permits in 2014.)

Shouldn’t full transparency be the price of cheap, abundant capital from a government-mandated lender? The consortium that EDC helped finance, for instance, ­included the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, which meant that nearly every working Canadian was linked to a venture a Chilean environmentalist called “an aberration.” At a time when Canadians are increasingly demanding ethical mutual funds and other responsible investment vehicles, how should they react to news that a government agency could be supporting the very companies and sectors they may have excommunicated from their portfolios?

No one I spoke with at EDC or in the Canadian government was willing to confront this question. In explaining how a credit agency that handles $100 billion a year in transactions decides whether to support a deal, Taylor’s email to me amounted to eight bullet points composed of 212 words. Face to face, Taylor found it more pressing to set the record straight on what EDC isn’t rather than what it is or does. “One thing that upsets me,” he said, “and upsets our CEO, is when we’re called taxpayer funded. We’re not.”

EDC describes itself as “a self-­financing, Crown corporation that operates at arm’s length from the Government.” This, as the agency is careful to point out, is a critical distinction—taxpayer money does not flow into EDC coffers, in no small part because it doesn’t need to. At the present moment, EDC is sitting on nearly $10 ­billion worth of capital, generates a net income of more than a billion a year, and has a ­sterling AAA credit rating. Perhaps on account of this success, the agency has fallen prey to mission creep. In 2014, it muscled out a number of private insurers and loaned $500 million of federal money to India’s largest publicly traded company, Reliance Industries. At that point, it was EDC’s biggest deal in Asia and one that had no direct correlation with boosting Canadian exporters. The reason for the loan is obvious: revenue. If nothing else, EDC is aggressive about its bottom line, and this allows it no small measure of ­political leverage. “As it happens, we pay dividends,” Taylor said. “The Canadian government actually makes money off us.” In 2016, the country reaped $786 million from this arrangement.

The agency falls under the ambit of the minister of international trade, currently François-Philippe Champagne. Long-time banking executive Benoit Daignault has served as CEO and president of EDC since 2014, and he reports to a chair and board of directors drawn largely from the private sector. But be that as it may, EDC remains a government agency, a designation which comes with a number of implications, the most important being that Canadians insure EDC’s corporate behavior. Every dollar it loans is implicitly ­taxpayer guaranteed. While EDC is currently uncrashable, so was Lehman Brothers before it ­cratered, bringing the global economy down with it. That is an extreme example, but it illustrates the potential knock-on effects of an EDC failure: bailouts to the agency and its insurers, perhaps in the tens of billions. It’s something Canadians should be aware of, considering they’d be stuck with the tab.

Until recently, EDC’s focus has been on Canada’s extractive sector—in 2014 alone, it extended $28 billion in financial services to mining and oil-and-gas ventures. The emphasis has changed over the past several years. “Right now, transportation is probably one of our biggest sectors,” said Taylor. In EDC’s case, transportation tends to translate as Bombardier.

FEA_Poplak_Art_02

Founded in 1942, Bombardier Inc. has a global workforce of 66,000, with about 16,500 of those employees based in Quebec. It’s impossible to imagine the company existing without corporate welfare. Since 1966, it has received nearly $4 billion in bailout money from both provincial and federal governments. This includes the $1 billion that the Quebec government recently paid for 49.5 ­percent stake in the company’s C Series single-aisle passenger jet program and the $372.5 million the federal government extended it in early 2017. (In ­October, Bombardier handed over half of the flailing C Series program to Airbus for free, massively diluting the worth of the Quebec government’s investment.) More significantly, since the beginning of the decade, the company has become embroiled in corruption scandals in South Korea, Sweden, Azerbaijan, and Russia. The malfeasance appears so systemic that when Thomas Forsberg, the senior prosecutor at Sweden’s National ­Anti-Corruption Unit, was asked why he had not named those who had co-conspired in a bribery case with the main defendant, a Bombardier employee, he replied, “Because there are so many of them.”

One of Bombardier’s biggest backers is EDC. In 2014—the year the Gupta letter of offer was issued by EDC—Bombardier received as much as $5 billion in agency support. In its business relationship with Bombardier, EDC appears willing to ignore quite a lot. Take, for example, the flap concerning the Gautrain, a high-speed commuter project constructed in the lead-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South ­Africa. In order to secure the contract, Bombardier paid out between $35 million and $54 ­million in “facilitation fees” to a ­Tunisian fixer named Youssef Zarrouk. The story broke in 2012. That alone might have served as a red flag regarding EDC’s continued support of Bombardier.

Apparently not. In March 2014, ­Bombardier’s transportation division in South ­Africa secured a locomotive deal worth about $1.2 billion with Transnet, the ­state-owned freight enterprise. With its well-documented history of alleged kickback payments, Transnet has perhaps the worst reputation of any state-owned entity in South Africa. EDC was undeterred and provided $450 million in financing to nail down the deal.

Was the contract worth the risk, ­especially for a credit agency that reports directly to the minister of international trade and has a logo proudly emblazoned with a red maple leaf? More to the point, didn’t Bombardier flirting so ­determinedly with suspect foreign entities come dangerously close to flouting the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act and thus ­Canada’s ­legally binding ­obligations under the United ­Nations Convention against Corruption? I reached out to Global ­Affairs Canada, which speaks for the minister of international trade, and asked whether it was time to ramp up scrutiny of EDC’s lending policy and to consider terminating its exemption to the Access to Information Act. A spokesperson replied that “EDC conducts its own assessments and due diligence on each transaction ­independently of the Government, and makes its own decision on each proposed transaction. It would therefore not be appropriate for the government of Canada to comment on the services it provides to specific businesses.”

Taylor remained calm throughout our conversation. “Nothing ever fits into a box tidily,” he said of EDC’s continued involvement with Bombardier and the Guptas. “We rely on third-party experts ­specific to either a sector or a place. Different countries treat different things in different ways, and when it comes to ­Bombardier and these accusations, you really need to look for proof. If you get to the point where there is a lot of noise but the contract was secure, well . . . ” he shrugged.

I asked Taylor how despite the steady stream of Gupta scandals reported since 2010, EDC appeared to have found everything in ­order. “EDC has to do the work itself,” he said. “You have to rely on people who are unbiased, and we’re unbiased. It can’t just be media reports. It’s not enough.”

As for the EDC loan to the Guptas, it turned out the money was just as peripatetic as the aircraft itself. According to leaked emails, after EDC financed the Guptas’ purchase of the Bombardier jet, the family immediately flipped the plane to an Irish shell company—thereby avoiding duties and tariffs—and began leasing it to themselves in order to generate expenses they could write off against their profits. The jet become known by its tail registration—ZS-OAK—and the leaks disclosed how it ferried the Guptas and local politicians on mystery trips to Switzerland, Japan, India, and other far-flung destinations.

A day after my visit to EDC, I meet with an activist named Karyn Keenan. A lawyer who began her career by working on social-justice issues with South American Indigenous communities affected by mining, Keenan is now the director at a small NGO called Above Ground. Its bailiwick is to ensure that Canadian companies receiving public financing meet their legal duty to respect human and ­environmental rights both at home and abroad. Along the way, and not coincidentally, they have ­become experts on EDC.

Keenan first heard of the agency in the late nineties when, as a law student ­investigating a massive cyanide spill into Guyana’s main waterway following a dam failure, she learned EDC had financed the Canadian-run company, Omai Gold Mines, that was responsible for the rupture. “There is a tendency for the mining and oil sectors to become associated with human rights and environmental problems,” Keenan says. “That’s certainly the case with EDC clients. We’ve seen companies qualify for finance, sometimes repeat loans, when their operations are being seriously questioned by activists.” Even after the disaster caused by Omai Gold Mines, EDC continued to insure Cambior Inc., a Quebec company and majority owner of the mine.

Above Ground also monitors EDC’s support for transnationals implicated in corruption on a scale the Guptas could only aspire to. Keenan directed my attention to the Brazilian state-owned oil-and-gas corporation Petrobras. In 2013, EDC gave Petrobras between $250 and $500 ­million to procure Canadian goods and services. The following year, Petrobras became mired in what has been described as the biggest corruption scandal in modern history. The investigation, still ongoing, codenamed Lavo Jato, or Car Wash, uncovered a multi-billion dollar scam that involved high-ranking Brazilian politicians who took bribes in exchange for inflated contracts, and street-level money dealers who laundered the payoff money out of a gas station. The scheme, which brought down then-president Dilma Rousseff, politically wounded her supposedly incorruptible predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and has left the current president, Michel Temer, facing charges of corruption, racketeering, and obstruction of justice. Millions of people have taken to the streets; the economy has all but tanked; Brazilian democracy is in crisis.

As Petrobas’s market value plunged, investors almost immediately tried to recoup their losses. In 2015, a 173-page class action suit was filed against Petrobas for its alleged complicity in the corruption scheme. And what did EDC—a corporation that insists it doesn’t do business with clients who demonstrate “legal, regulatory and reputational risks”—do when it discovered that it had extended a massive sum to a company that was now blowing up an entire country? On May 11, 2015, the day before Rousseff’s suspension and with Brazil in chaos, Keenan sent CEO Benoit Daignault a series of questions regarding the agency’s transactions with Petrobras. What methods did EDC use to evaluate anti-bribery procedures prior to the approval of financing? And did EDC ever investigate if the company used the financing for criminal purposes? Keenan received a letter from Signi Schneider, then EDC’s vice-president of corporate social responsibility. The law, she reminded Keenan, prohibited her from commenting.

EDC devotes four floors of its headquarters to its corporate social responsibility (CSR) department. This is where every entity that receives a financial instrument from the EDC must be cleared.

Like any Canadian corporation with a CSR division, EDC takes many of its cues from a set of government guidelines promulgated in the 2014 document “Doing Business the Canadian Way: A Strategy to Advance Corporate Social Responsibility in Canada’s Extractive Sector Abroad.” For companies operating in regulatory or legal quagmires abroad, “the Government of Canada encourages them to find ways to reflect Canadian values.” If that isn’t possible, “companies may wish to reconsider their investment.”

As critics of Canada’s CSR strategy have long complained, there is a snag with its guidelines: “Canadian values” are not legally defined concepts, but abstractions that can mean different things to different CEOs. Absent actual legislation, following CSR rules becomes a free-associative performance of responsibility. What is the outcome for corporations, Crown or otherwise, that flout these guidelines? Not much. The office of the CSR counsellor—whose mandate is to “advise” Canadian corporations on best practices—will deliver a light hectoring, gently reminding companies “of the importance of responsible business practices and human rights.”

How EDC squares with “Canadian values” is more than a conceptual question. The Export Development Act clearly identifies EDC as an agent of the government, which means that if EDC is somehow held accountable for any breach of international human rights law, Canada is on the hook. In a highly connected global financial system, this becomes much bigger than a Canadian problem. All states are responsible under international law for the behaviour of their export credit agencies. But because no states appear to be interested in censuring the behaviour of their export development agencies and by virtue of the fact that no governments reign in their own or other export development agencies, nothing is ever done to curtail the reach and influence of these institutions.

This vast, geopolitical Mexican standoff, in which agencies such as EDC operate with de facto impunity, is what Cephas Lumina, a UN expert on the effects of foreign debt on human rights, was referring to in his 2011 annual report to the United Nations General Assembly. “A significant number of the projects supported by export credit agencies,” he wrote, “particularly large dams, oil pipelines, greenhouse gas-emitting coal and nuclear power plants, chemical facilities, mining projects and forestry and plantation schemes, have severe environmental, social and human rights impacts.” Without more policing and transparency, insisted Lumina, export credit agencies will continue to spirit billions of untraceable, unaccountable dollars through the global economy every year.

That impunity is actually encoded into our parliamentary oversight. The Auditor General looks at EDC at least once every ten years, but the auditing process is largely comparative: Is EDC operating the same way as other export credit agencies around the world? “So it’s a relative assessment,” says Keenan, “not an absolute assessment.” EDC’s environmental and social impact and human rights policies are compared to other credit agencies also financing companies credibly associated with similar abuse and harm. Every ten years, EDC is declared 100 percent kosher, and parliamentarians are none the wiser.

Far from being reigned in, EDC is about to take a bold leap forward. In May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ­announced the government’s intention to establish a new development finance institution. Roughly as widespread as export credit agencies, DFIs have become the first forays into otherwise inhospitable investment zones. They provide targeted financing for locations that have trouble attracting capital, such as Afghanistan, or the most poverty-stricken regions of countries including Brazil and China. DFI loans tend to be smaller than those extended by export credit agencies, but if the gamble is successful, larger investment ­usually ­follows. In 2013, developing economies absorbed nearly $1 trillion in DFI money. 

It doesn’t take much imagination to conceive of how such institutions can serve as highly honed tools of corruption—smaller loans, dispensed with little due diligence, tracked with slack oversight. Nonetheless, the Canadian government was bullish. “According to some estimates, $1 invested by a DFI can leverage an additional $12 in private sector investments,” read the initial statement. Canada’s version would be a brand new Crown corporation housed within EDC and functioning as a subsidiary—not unlike the art-film wing of a Hollywood studio. The government wants it operational by January 2018 and has fielded repeated warnings by human rights advocates that effective transparency and accountability rules need to be built into the heart of the program.

Keenan, however, isn’t optimistic. “It’s going to be housed at an institution that has no real track record for assessing development, human rights, and social impacts?” she asked. There is, of course, room for a DFI that is part of a transparent export credit agency that dispenses financing for clean Canadian companies—EDC has thousands on its roster—and one that withdraws support at the merest whiff of impropriety. But, for Keenan, until EDC becomes a known and discussed entity, and becomes ­entirely transparent about its dealings, that reality is impossible. “Few know that it exists,” she reminded me. “And if you do know it exists, you don’t necessarily understand the intricacies of how it works.”

Toward the end of my meeting with Taylor, I asked him what “corruption” meant in the lexicon of the organization he spoke for. He barely hesitated: “anything that distorts the market,” he said. But EDC and its contemporaries do more than distort. The concern is not that they accidentally support corruption, it is that they end up serving as its primary funders—first-stop lenders for the most troubling corporate entities on earth. Morally, to say nothing of financially, Canadians are on the hook for EDC’s behaviour. The Guptas may be a South African scourge, but thanks to EDC, they are Canadian beneficiaries.

As for the jet we paid for, according to the tracking site FlightAware, ZS-OAK currently sits on the tarmac in Dubai. What the Gupta brothers are doing in the desert is anyone’s guess.

On December 21, 2017, two days after this article was published online, Export Development Canada announced that it was suddenly terminating its $41 million loan to South Africa’s notorious Gupta family intended for the purchase of a luxury Bombardier jet. As Richard Poplak reports in our story, the Crown corporation was criticized for its decision to finance the sale in 2014 given the extensive and widely known corruption charges that have been levelled at the Guptas over the years. The Gupta deal, however, remains one of many ethically dubious and controversial financial transactions EDC has yet to answer for.

Richard Poplak (richardpoplak.com) is a political reporter currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Sébastien Thibault draws for the New York Times, L’actualité, and The Atlantic.

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