Skip to main content

Former Treasury Board president Scott Brison, seen during Question Period in the House of Commons in October, 2018, became vice-chair of the Bank of Montreal's investment banking arm after leaving government.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Bank of Montreal is never specifically mentioned in the Federal Ethics Commissioner’s damning report on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s crusade for SNC-Lavalin, but the institution is now caught up in a scandal that will haunt the federal Liberals in the fall election campaign.

Mario Dion, the federal ethics watchdog, laid bare the all-too-cozy underside of Corporate Canada in finding the Prime Minister and his team violated the Conflict of Interest Act by relentlessly pushing former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to drop a criminal case against SNC-Lavalin. By naming names and detailing exactly what played out behind closed doors last fall, Mr. Dion showed how top executives at one of the country’s largest banks came to feature prominently in this political drama.

Mr. Dion’s report details the role that Bank of Montreal board chairman Robert Prichard and BMO vice-chair Kevin Lynch played in lobbying the Trudeau Liberals on behalf of SNC-Lavalin, including multiple pitches the pair made to former President of the Treasury Board Scott Brison last October and November.

Here’s where things get far too cute: Mr. Brison stepped down as a cabinet minister early this year to become vice-chair of the investment banking arm of, you guessed it, Bank of Montreal.

Circles are small in Canadian business, and Mr. Prichard and Mr. Lynch had every reason to be twisting arms on behalf of SNC-Lavalin, though the pair were in the Prime Minister’s office so often last fall they should have been allowed to choose the furniture. Mr. Prichard is also chair of law firm Torys, which is representing the Montreal-based engineering company. And along with his day job at BMO, Mr. Lynch is chair of the board of SNC-Lavalin. He’s also the former Clerk of the Privy Council, the country’s top civil servant.

According to Mr. Dion, Mr. Prichard and Mr. Lynch first reached out to Mr. Brison on mid-October “on an unrelated matter,” then used the conversation to persuade the politician to give SNC-Lavalin a “remediation agreement.” Mr. Brison later told the Ethics Commissioner that “the company’s concerns appeared sensible,” and he contacted Ms. Wilson-Raybould the same day “to bring the company’s concerns to her attention.” And Ms. Wilson-Raybould said something to the effect of the lady’s not for turning, explaining she could not interfere in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.

The pitches kept coming. In early November, Mr. Prichard sent Mr. Brison an e-mail containing a legal opinion from fellow Torys lawyer Frank Iacobucci, a former Supreme Court Justice, that stated Ms. Wilson-Raybould would be justified in overturning the decision to criminally charge SNC-Lavalin. Mr. Prichard told Mr. Brison: “We are also considering other ways to make it easier for the Minister to engage and reverse the [Director of Public Prosecutions] decision. In the end, however, it will take a deliberate decision from the center.”

Justin Trudeau responds to the federal ethics commissioner's report that he violated the Conflict of Interest Act by improperly pressuring former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin

The Canadian Press

Mr. Brison, still a cabinet minister, dutifully forwarded Mr. Prichard’s message to the nerve centre of the Liberal government. He sent it to senior members of the Prime Minister’s office.

And Mr. Dion’s report shows that during a conference in Beijing in mid-November, 2018, Mr. Lynch talked to both Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Mr. Brison on behalf of SNC-Lavalin. The Finance Minister and his former chief of staff both made a case for forgiving SNC-Lavalin to Ms. Wilson-Raybould.

“The repeated interventions by the Prime Minister, his most senior ministerial staff and public officials to have the Attorney-General find a solution, even in the face of her refusal to intervene in the matter, lead me to conclude that these actions were tantamount to political direction,” Mr. Dion said in Wednesday’s report. “The authority of the Prime Minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson‑Raybould as the Crown’s chief law officer.”

In January, Mr. Brison announced he was leaving politics. The subsequent cabinet shuffle saw Ms. Wilson-Raybould moved to Veterans Affairs, a shift she subsequently linked to her refusal to find a solution to SNC-Lavalin’s woes. Mr. Brison joined Bank of Montreal in February.

Mr. Prichard said on Wednesday he played no role in recruiting Mr. Brison, and did not learn the former cabinet minister was joining the bank until late January. In an e-mail, Bank of Montreal spokesperson Paul Gammal said: “Kevin Lynch and Rob Prichard had absolutely no involvement in BMO Capital Markets’ hiring of Scott Brison.”

Mr. Brison left politics under a cloud, as he was being pulled into the criminal case against the Canadian military’s former second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman. Lawyers for Mr. Norman alleged that as a cabinet minister, Mr. Brison tried to scotch a $668-million naval leasing contract with the Davie shipyard in Levis, Que. and instead send the business to Irving Shipbuilding, in his home province of Nova Scotia. Mr. Brison denied the allegation, and it was never tested in court. Federal prosecutors dropped the case against Mr. Norman in May.

Bank of Montreal has done more for SNC-Lavalin than just have its executives reach out to the Liberals. When the federal government canvassed corporate Canada for views on deferred prosecution agreements before introducing the legislation in February, 2018, only one Canadian financial institution made a written submission to support the idea. Again, you guessed it, Bank of Montreal stepped up. “This was a government consultation process that was open to public and private sectors,” a spokesman said in an e-mail. “BMO provided perspective as an engaged corporate citizen, and one that supports harmonized regulation in the U.S. and Canada.”

Canada’s oldest bank may be a good corporate citizen for weighing in on proposed legislation. The bank may prove a savvy recruiter for landing a potential rainmaker in Mr. Brison. But when key executives emerge as central players in an ethical scandal that ropes in the Prime Minister and his cabinet, it’s not a good look. Bank of Montreal risks the reputational damage that comes with trying too hard to help a tarnished SNC-Lavalin.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.