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WSP says it has turned the page on ethics problems raised at inquiry

MONTREAL - WSP Global says it has adopted whistleblower protections and code of conduct rules that would have protected a former employee has testified that the company ignored her warnings about inflated provincial road contracts.

Chief executive Pierre Shoiry said Thursday that the Montreal-based engineering and consulting firm can't change what happened more than a decade ago, but it has put in place mechanisms to ensure those things never happen again.

"We are certain today that things like this couldn't happen," he said in an interview after WSP's (TSX:WSP) annual meeting.

Former junior engineer Karen Duhamel testified last week before the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in Quebec's construction industry that she complained about "irregularities" on bills charged to the provincial government to complete work on a major highway project in Montreal in the summer of 2003.

After her complaints to two senior engineers went unheeded, Duhamel said went to Quebec's Order of Engineers, which determined there wasn't enough evidence to open an investigation.

Duhamel eventually quit the company, formerly called Genivar, after officials allegedly said she had a bad attitude and warned her to be careful about filing complaints in the future.

Another engineer also testified that the two senior engineers warned him that his career would be threatened if he also sounded the alarm on extra billing. Shoiry said while such behaviour is not acceptable and wouldn't be tolerated today, he's Ok with the fact that the two senior engineers named at the inquiry remain employed with the company.

Shoiry said the inquiry spotlighted "an isolated case" for a company that employs 17,000 workers around the world.

"We do thousands of projects a year and specifically for the ministry of transportation we do hundreds a year. Here we have the spotlight on this project," he said.

"Today if what the lady says happened, she would have the tools to raise this within the organization."

However, Shoiry said all the processes, governance and codes can't guarantee there won't be any unwanted events.

Meanwhile, WSP said its business is performing well and growing while it continues to study a healthy pipeline of acquisition opportunities around the world.

It says infrastructure will continue to be a key driver, with global spending expected to double to $9 trillion in today's dollars by 2025.

But challenges in the mining sector and a slowdown in eastern and central Canada has reduced infrastructure spending in Canada for more than a year, offset by a better performance in Western Canada.

"The Canadian operations in the first quarter continued to decline overall but we've right sized the organization and we're confident now that over the course of the next few quarters the business will stabilize," he said.

WSP cut about 500 jobs in Canada last year, or about 10 per cent of its overall workforce, as it reorganized operations following the acquisition of U.K.-based WSP.

Shoiry said its diversified international business model helps to mitigate weaknesses in individual regions. Quebec used to account for 90 per cent of Genivar's revenues in 2006, but now contributes just 10 per cent, with Canada contributing one-third of overall revenues.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, WSP's shares closed at $37.90, up 23 cents in Thursday trading.

Follow @RossMarowits on Twitter

The Canadian Press


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