Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick says he did not brief Justin Trudeau about a Dec. 19 phone call with Jody Wilson-Raybould in which the former attorney-general warned him that the Prime Minister and his staff were engaging in political interference in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
During the call, Mr. Wernick, the top bureaucrat in the federal government, had said he would have to “report back” to the Prime Minister on what the attorney-general had told him. But in a statement released by his lawyer over the weekend, Mr. Wernick said he did not inform Mr. Trudeau of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s concerns in part because “everyone went on holidays” the day after the phone call. In fact, Mr. Trudeau did not go on holiday until Dec. 23.
But Mr. Wernick and the Prime Minister’s Office both issued statements that the Clerk did not brief Mr. Trudeau. A recording of the call was part of a submission Ms. Wilson-Raybould made last week to the House justice committee. In the same conversation, Mr. Wernick said Mr. Trudeau was considering hiring former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin for an outside legal opinion.
Ms. McLachlin’s name has appeared several times in the evidence and testimony provided to the House of Commons justice committee during its investigation of the SNC-Lavalin affair and the political pressure exerted on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to shelve the bribery and fraud prosecution of the Montreal-based engineering giant.
Ms. McLachlin, however, said she was never hired to prepare a legal opinion on the SNC-Lavalin criminal prosecution and did not offer any legal advice to Ms. Wilson-Raybould on the matter.
Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to the Prime Minister, tweeted Sunday that he has handed over additional texts and notes to the justice committee in response to the new evidence submitted by Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
Late Friday night, the PMO released a statement in response to the taped conversation, saying that Mr. Wernick never told Mr. Trudeau about what transpired on the Dec. 19 telephone call.
“The Prime Minister was not briefed by the Clerk on his conversation with Jody Wilson-Raybould, and we were unaware of the full contents of this recording before today,” the statement said.
Mr. Wernick’s office initially said it had no comment on the PMO denying Mr. Trudeau knew what was said during the phone call. Late Saturday, a lawyer hired by Mr. Wernick to provide advice on the SNC-Lavalin affair issued a statement.
“The Clerk raised the issue with the A-G as part of his job to manage relations between the PM and his cabinet ministers. Everyone went on holidays the next day,” Toronto lawyer Frank Addario said. “When everyone returned at the beginning of January, the first burning issue was the [Scott] Brison resignation and a cabinet shuffle. The SNC issue never made it back to the top of the discussion list.”
He added, “the Clerk never discussed SNC again with the PM or PMO until someone leaked the story to The Globe and Mail in early February.”
However, the schedule for the Prime Minister shows that he was in Ottawa on Dec. 19 until at least Dec. 21. Mr. Trudeau then went to Mali to visit Canadian peacekeepers on Dec. 22-23 and later vacationed in the West. Mr. Wernick also testified on Mar. 6 that Mr. Trudeau can be reached 24/7 on the PMO switchboard.
Ms. McLachlin was mentioned several times in evidence from Ms. Wilson-Raybould that was made public last Friday, including the Dec. 19 phone call she recorded between her and Mr. Wernick. In the recording, Mr. Wernick, the outgoing Clerk of the Privy Council, tells Ms. Wilson-Raybould that the Prime Minister was “thinking of bringing someone in like Bev McLachlin to give him advice on this or to give you advice on this if you want to feel more comfortable you are not doing anything inappropriate.”
Ms. McLachlin said she provided no legal advice to the federal government or the former minister. The Globe has contacted her twice on this question over the past five weeks.
“I was never retained by anyone on this matter and never prepared a legal opinion,” Ms. McLachlin said in an e-mailed statement. “More specifically, as to your first question, I never submitted a legal opinion or advice to Ms. Wilson-Raybould on this or any other matter.”
Testimony and evidence from Ms. Wilson-Raybould showed that Mr. Butts and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Katie Telford also raised the prospect with the former attorney-general’s office of getting outside legal advice.
The day before Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s phone call with Mr. Wernick, her former chief of staff, Jessica Prince, told her boss how Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford tried to convince her to get an outside legal opinion on whether the former attorney-general could review the decision of the director of public prosecutions (DPP) not to start negotiations on a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
“Basically, they want a solution,” Ms. Prince reported back to Ms. Wilson-Raybould. “They want external counsel retained to give you an opinion on whether you can review the DPP’s decision here and whether you should in this case. Someone like Bev McLachlin.”
According to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, when Ms. Prince asked what if the legal opinion comes back that says “she can review but she shouldn’t” or simply “she can’t review it, end of story.” Mr. Butts is quoted as saying, “it wouldn’t say that.”
The Globe and Mail asked Ms. McLachlin whether anyone in the federal government had contacted her on this matter, even informally, and what she might have told them. The Globe also asked her for her opinion on the SNC-Lavalin prosecution and how Ms. Wilson-Raybould handled it.
Ms. McLachlin said she has “nothing further to add and no further comment” beyond her statement about how she did not prepare a legal opinion or offer any advice to Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
Deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt said the new evidence from Ms. Wilson-Raybould demonstrates how loudly she expressed her concern about political interference to senior levels of government.
Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly said if his former attorney-general was worried about political interference, she should have raised it with him.
The audio tape shows Ms. Wilson-Raybould raised her concerns very strongly with Mr. Wernick, the top public servant who reports directly to Mr. Trudeau.
“He just can’t say he wasn’t given notice,” Ms. Raitt said. “Seriously they are making this up as they go.”
The Globe reported on Feb. 7 that the Prime Minister’s Office had put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
At first, Mr. Trudeau called the story “false.” Weeks later, he acknowledged the effort to pressure Ms. Wilson-Rabyould but he called it lawful and not “inappropriate.”
In the fallout, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Treasury Board president Jane Philpott resigned from cabinet and Mr. Butts left government. Mr. Wernick also announced his retirement, saying he had lost the trust of the opposition parties for his role in the matter.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the fresh evidence of political interference provided by Ms. Wilson-Raybould demonstrates the need for a public inquiry into the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“The PMO has tried to spin this as a miscommunication or personal disagreement. What we see in this submission is a lawyer acting in her client’s best interests to protect him from his own recklessness,” Mr. Singh said. “The former attorney-general repeatedly made clear to the Prime Minister and those around him that their inappropriate actions would be seen as political interference – and they ignored her.”
Mr. Butts’s latest submissions to the justice committee will not be released to the public until the texts and notes have been translated into French, but a source says they deal with the Dec. 18 conversation with Ms. Prince.
The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Mr. Butts believes the evidence will show he was asking Ms. Prince for her views on the law and not directing her to take a specific action.
One point of contention from that conversation involves a possible historical precedent for prime ministers ordering attorney-generals to take action on individual cases.
Ms. Prince quotes Mr. Butts in the meeting as saying former prime minister Brian Mulroney told his attorney-general Kim Campbell to order a new trial for David Milgaard, who was wrongly convicted of murder and imprisoned for 23 years.
In her justice committee submissions, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she later contacted Ms. Campbell, herself a former prime minister and now a judicial adviser to the federal government, to see if what Mr. Butts had said was accurate.
Ms. Campbell told her Mr. Mulroney knew better than to politically intervene with the judgment of the attorney-general in criminal cases.
However, the source said Mr. Mulroney told Mr. Butts that he did ask Ms. Campbell to intervene.
And in his 2007 memoirs, Mr. Mulroney said he instructed Ms. Campbell to refer the case to the Supreme Court of Canada. He recounted how he was “disturbed” by the way in which she had “brushed off” Mr. Milgaard’s mother’s demands for help.
In response to what Mr. Mulroney wrote in his memoirs, Ms. Campbell tweeted Sunday that Mr. Mulroney was worried that her unwillingness to “speak to Mrs Milgaard when she blindsided me with TV cameras at a Winnipeg event made me look bad.”
But Ms. Campbell said the Supreme Court of Canada “reference was my idea and he [Mr. Mulroney] does himself no favours in rewriting history.”
She later also noted that her decision was not a prosecutorial one but involved an application for the royal prerogative of mercy.
With files from The Canadian Press