Francois Legault is admitting he met with the head of SNC-Lavalin late last year to discuss an agreement with Ottawa that would allow the engineering company to avoid prosecution on bribery and fraud charges.

Last fall, the company approached Quebec Justice Minister Sonia Lebel to seek her support for a deferred prosecution agreement so SNC-Lavalin could pay a fine as opposed to being prosecuted.

Lebel refused the meeting.

In October, however, Legault met with SNC-Lavalin CEO Neil Bruce.

The premier has so far been reluctant to discuss what transpired at the meeting, but he spoke about it Friday.

“We discussed how we can keep those jobs during the interim period where we have very important accusations – criminal accusations,” he said.

A guilty verdict would see SNC-Lavalin barred from bidding on federal contracts for ten years and Legault said that would punish thousands of Quebec employees who did nothing wrong.

“The company has to pay a large amount of penalties. They are ready to do so. People who were involved in these matters, they need to be punished – but how do we protect the jobs?” said Legault.

The premier said he's worried that as SNC-Lavalin’s share price continues to fall, the company could become the target of a foreign takeover, resulting in the company's head office moving.

“I told the prime minister people should be punished, but we need to protect Quebec jobs and protect the future of SNC-Lavalin,” said Legault.

A deferred prosecution makes sense for SNC-Lavalin, said Michel Nadeau of the Institute for Governance of Public and Private Organizations.

Nadeau is also the former head of the Caisse de depot.

“When large corporations are doing something wrong, we try to avoid trials because it's a long process. It's a very costly process. So in Europe, in the United States, the governments are trying to penalize leaders, the managers. Managers should go to jail,” he said, adding that governments will always try to protect jobs.

Lebel said she’s not ruling out a meeting with her federal counterpart, adding though, that ultimately, these charges fall under federal jurisdiction.