Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer has dared Justin Trudeau to take him to court over the SNC-Lavalin scandal after the Prime Minister threatened to launch a libel suit.
At a news conference Sunday, the Official Opposition Leader released a letter from the Prime Minister’s lawyer, Julian Porter, saying Mr. Scheer issued a press release on March 29 that went “beyond the pale of fair debate and is libellous” by falsely suggesting Mr. Trudeau had actually interfered in the SNC criminal prosecution. Mr. Porter said his letter, which was dated March 31, should be “treated as notice” of possible action under the Libel and Slander Act of Ontario.
Mr. Scheer said he would welcome a battle in court after having Liberal-dominated parliamentary committees shut down hearings into the SNC affair. Members of the Commons ethics committee are expected to debate again on Tuesday whether to pursue the matter, after the release of documents from former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould.
“I stand by every single criticism I have made of Mr. Trudeau’s conduct in regards to this scandal, including those Mr. Trudeau’s lawyer cites in his letter,” Mr. Scheer said. He urged the Prime Minister to follow through with his threatened lawsuit immediately. “This is an urgent matter of public interest and deserves to be heard in a legal setting where Liberals do not control the proceedings.”
Asked whether he was accusing Mr. Trudeau of committing a crime, Mr. Scheer said the Prime Minister “led a campaign to politically interfere in ongoing court proceedings," adding that he had written the RCMP to investigate. In his letter to Mr. Scheer, Mr. Porter said there was “no evidence that suggests there has been any actual interference with SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution.”
In a statement, a PMO spokeswoman said the Conservatives are avoiding other important economic and environmental issues − such as housing and climate change − by maintaining their focus on the SNC-Lavalin issue.
“Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives have repeatedly made false and defamatory statements,” Mr. Trudeau’s press secretary, Eleanore Catenaro, said in an e-mailed statement “We put him on notice that there are consequences for making completely false and libellous statements.”
At a committee hearing, Ms. Wilson-Raybould testified that she had received several phone calls from senior staffers of the Prime Minister’s Office, including former principal secretary Gerald Butts, as well as Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, urging her to revisit her decision not to intervene in the prosecutors’ decision to proceed with the SNC case. The former minister said she did not believe the interventions were illegal but were inappropriate, and that she had succeeded in protecting the independence of the criminal prosecution from political interference. At the news conference, Mr. Scheer said it should be up to the RCMP and the courts to determine whether the interference was illegal.
The ensuing controversy led to the resignations of Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Treasury Board president Jane Philpott and Mr. Butts, as well as the retirement of Mr. Wernick. Both women were expelled from the Liberal caucus last week.
In an interview aired on Global TV on Sunday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she had no “end game” with regards to the fate of the Liberal government or Mr. Trudeau personally in her determination to speak the truth about the controversy.
Her goal was to “ensure there was no inappropriate pressure, there’s no inappropriate political interference or partisan considerations when it comes to a prosecution,” she said. “That is a fundamental tenet of our democracy to ensure independence of the prosecution, to uphold the rule of law.”
It is rare but not unprecedented for a prime minister or premier to sue − or even threaten to sue − an opposition leader. Criticism made in the House of Commons or a provincial legislature are afforded parliamentary privilege and cannot be the basis for a libel suit. The statements from Mr. Scheer that are in contention were made in a press release.
Then-prime minister Stephen Harper sued then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and the Liberal Party for libel in 2008. The action was over statements that Mr. Harper knew of an alleged attempt to bribe Chuck Cadman, an independent MP dying of cancer, with a life-insurance policy in return for voting against the then-Liberal government in 2005. Mr. Harper dropped the lawsuit in early 2009, saying it was because Mr. Dion was no longer party leader.
Kathleen Wynne, Ontario premier at the time, filed a defamation lawsuit against then-Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown in December, 2017. A day before Ms. Wynne testified as a witness in a trial involving two Liberals facing bribery charges, Mr. Brown told reporters he hoped she would give answers about the scandal “maybe when she stands trial.” He later refused to apologize. The status of the lawsuit was not known on Sunday.
The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that Mr. Trudeau’s office put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she was attorney-general to help SNC-Lavalin, which had tried unsuccessfully to win a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors over bribery and fraud charges. Mr. Trudeau initially called the story “false,” though he later acknowledged there had been continuing conversations between his officials and the then-attorney-general.
New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus denounced Mr. Trudeau’s threat of a lawsuit as a “desperate” intimidation tactic designed to shut down opposition. The NDP has not received a similar letter.
"I have to ask who is doing the damage control in the Prime Minister’s Office because this [SNC affair] has been like a relentless dumpster fire that they keep pouring gasoline on,” Mr. Angus said.
Mr. Angus noted that five former attorneys-general − none of whom were Liberal − wrote an open letter asking for an RCMP investigation into the PMO’s role. “These are legitimate questions to ask about political interference and an orchestrated campaign out of the Prime Minister’s Office, because all the key people on the Prime Minister’s staff were involved,” he said.
With a report from Jill Mahoney