Of the five Ws in this story, only one is known: Who.
Who can tell Canadians about the when, where, why and what of any discussions within the Trudeau government about deferring criminal charges against engineering giant SNC-Lavalin? That would be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, senior members of the Prime Minister’s Office, cabinet members such as current Justice Minister David Lametti, and former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Who has answers? That’s clear. Entirely unclear are what those answers might be. Also unclear: whether they will reveal actions on the part of the Prime Minister or senior members of the government that should trouble Canadians, or behaviour that is entirely benign.
The jury is still out. No, scratch that: The jury is in. The court of public opinion is still in session, awaiting evidence. Only the Trudeau government can provide it.
Last week, this newspaper reported that in 2018, the PMO put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to persuade the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to reach a negotiated “remediation agreement” with SNC-Lavalin, instead of going to trial. The Montreal-based company is facing charges of bribery and fraud related to business dealings in Libya between 2001 and 2011.
The Prime Minister’s response so far has been incomplete and unconvincing. He has come at the allegation from various angles but without actually denying it. That has only raised more questions.
Last week, in his first go, he said repeatedly that he didn’t “direct” Ms. Wilson-Raybould to order prosecutors to cut a deal with SNC-Lavalin. However, the Globe report never alleged that she was ordered to reach a settlement, but rather that she was put under pressure to do so.
On Monday, the PM conceded that last fall he discussed the SNC-Lavalin case with Ms. Wilson-Raybould. He also said that, at that time, “I told her directly that any decisions on matters involving the director of public prosecutions were hers alone.”
But he would say little more about what other words or suggestions might have been exchanged in these discussions, citing cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege. Canada’s justice minister is also the attorney-general; in other words, the government’s lawyer.
As for the idea that anything untoward happened, or that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was unhappy with the handling of the matter, or her own abrupt demotion from Justice to Veterans Affairs, Mr. Trudeau pointed to the fact that she was still on the front bench.
“Her presence in cabinet,” he said, “should actually speak for itself.”
Only a few hours later, however, she resigned from cabinet. Her resignation letter implied a connection to the SNC-Lavalin case: to advise her on what she can say publicly about what transpired, she hired former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell as legal counsel.
Does that speak for itself? If so, what does it say?
The matter has raised questions about whether the Trudeau government tried to influence the SNC-Lavalin prosecution in a way that was ethically or legally problematic. Canadians have a right to answers. If they don’t like them, things could turn out very badly for the Trudeau government.
SNC-Lavalin is facing charges under the Corruption of Foreign Officials Act, and conviction carries the possibility of a 10-year ban on doing business with the Canadian government, a penalty that could prove devastating for the company’s future. However, the law contemplates the possibility of prosecutors being directed by the attorney-general to defer a prosecution. Any direction would have to come in writing and be made public.
Such direction might be legal. It might also be questionable – particularly in the case of a company such as SNC-Lavalin, a major employer connected to a number of corruption scandals, and which has extensively lobbied the federal government on this issue. There’s a reason the law says direction from the minister to prosecutors has to be made public.
The Prime Minister has to tell Canadians what role, if any, he and his office played or attempted to play in this case. It may be that the government has answers that can satisfy the law, and the public. But the questions cannot be waited out, or wished away.