Is the Canadian government backing Jesse Jackson Jr.'s third airport plans?

SHARE Is the Canadian government backing Jesse Jackson Jr.'s third airport plans?

U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. talks with members of the South Suburban Action Conference and Gamaliel of Metro Chicago as they prepare to break ground at the site of the new proposed airport as they convened for a “Blessing of the Land” along Offner Rd. near S. Will Center Rd. in Monee, IL on Saturday April 21, 2012. Ogalla is the third generation of her family to farm in Will Township. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. calls his south suburban airport plan a fully funded package.

He pushed that theme again when he rolled over fellow Democrat Debbie Halvorson in the March primary.

“We’ve got the money – $700 million,” Jackson said on election night. “They’ve got a check.”

And then he added this: “They have a guarantee from the government of Canada.”

Jackson presumably meant SNC-Lavalin, though he didn’t name the Canadian firm. It’s one of two he’s picked to help fund and build a third airport for Chicago near Peotone. But earlier this year, after SNC became embroiled in a corruption scandal north of the border, the Canadian Commercial Corporation sent a letter to Gov. Pat Quinn.

The group – a Canadian government agency – backed SNC, according to a copy of the letter. And it promised Quinn a “Canadian Government-backed guarantee” if he let the agency sign up as a prime contractor for the airport project, likely hiring SNC to do the work as a subcontractor.

“This is not unusual,” said Rick Bryant, Jackson’s chief of staff.

The comment on election night caught some people’s attention, though.

It’s still not clear who would run the south suburban airport if it’s built, and the congressman’s been at odds with Will County officials who don’t like how he’s set up his Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is also pushing an O’Hare Airport expansion plan he said would eliminate the need for a third air hub.

But Jackson believes it could bring crucial jobs to the Southland economy, and Will County Center for Economic Development CEO John Greuling backed him up.

The congressman often points out the airport has the support and financial backing of SNC and LCOR Inc. of Pennsylvania to bolster his case. It turns out SNC’s also had the Canadian Commercial Corporation in its corner for at least two years.

Joanne Lostracco, a spokeswoman for the agency, said its mission is to support Canadian companies as they do business with foreign governments – in this case the state of Illinois. In the United States it’s primarily involved with defense contracts.

“The government of Canada is only involved because (SNC) is a Canadian company,” Lostracco said.

Donald Olsen, its director of business development and sales, wrote a letter to Quinn in February 2010 that described SNC as “very well suited” to the airport project. Olsen said his agency could “coordinate financing, guarantees and special arrangements.”

SNC’s had lots of bad press this year, though, involving the Libyan government, fraud and money laundering. Bryant said Jackson still has “full faith” in the company, as the scandals have involved consultants and former executives. He said SNC wrote a letter to Quinn this year assuring him of its ability to take on the airport project, and Olsen followed suit. That’s when he offered the Canadian guarantee.

But Will County Board member Cory Singer, a Republican running for county executive, said Jackson got ahead of himself when he announced that guarantee.

It doesn’t exist, Singer said, because nothing’s final. And it’s not clear whether Quinn wants the Canadian agency involved.

Quinn’s letter from the agency is posed as an “if,” Singer also points out.

“You can’t say ‘guaranteed’ and ‘if’ in the same sentence and have them connect,” Singer said. “They don’t connect.”

If the Canadian Commercial Corporation signs on to the south suburban airport project and SNC fails to hold up its end of the bargain, Lostracco said, her agency would be responsible for finding a new firm to finish the work. She doubts that will be a problem.

“We have worked with them in the past,” Lostracco said of SNC, “and we would be prepared to work with them in the future.”

Though Lostracco couldn’t name a U.S. counterpart to her agency, Bryant pointed to groups such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government agency that helps private companies do business in developing countries.

Quinn’s office had nothing to say recently about the role the Canadian Commercial Corporation would play in the airport project. A spokeswoman said the governor’s office is still trying to figure out who would run the airport. But Bryant said the backing of a government like Canada’s is like “gold.”

“It makes the financial world much more comfortable,” Bryant said.

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