Prime Minister Justin Trudeau conceded on Monday that he discussed the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin last fall with then-justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould but provided few details – citing cabinet confidentiality.
Speaking at a Vancouver news conference, Mr. Trudeau recounted a conversation with the minister in the fall of 2018 in which he said to her that she alone would determine how to proceed in cases handled by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.
Mr. Trudeau told reporters he has met twice with Ms. Wilson-Raybould in Vancouver since Sunday.
“She confirmed for me a conversation we had this fall where I told her directly that any decisions on matters involving the director of public prosecutions were hers alone,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The Prime Minister has still not directly addressed allegations that his office attempted to put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to order an end to the prosecution of the company in exchange for a negotiated settlement and fines.
The Globe and Mail reported last week that Ms. Wilson-Raybould came under pressure to override the decision of the prosecution service and direct it to stay court proceedings against the Montreal engineering and construction giant in favour of a negotiated settlement without trial. The company faces charges of bribing Libyan officials between 2001 and 2011 in exchange for contracts.
Mr. Trudeau’s comments came hours after the NDP revealed that the federal ethics commissioner has launched an investigation into the allegations that Mr. Trudeau and senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and other government officials pressed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to abandon the fraud and corruption prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion told the NDP on Monday that there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation under a section of the Conflict of Interest Act.
”I have reason to believe that a possible contravention of Section 9 may have occurred,” Mr. Dion wrote to NDP MPs Nathan Cullen and Charlie Angus. “Section 9 prohibits a public office holder from seeking to influence a decision of another person so as to improperly further another person’s private interest. As a result, I have initiated an examination … and have so informed Mr. Trudeau.” The act allows the commissioner to hear testimony in private from both elected and unelected government officials.
The Prime Minister held up this account of his conversation with Ms. Wilson-Raybould as evidence he had not sought to override her judgment.
The Globe and Mail never reported that officials in Mr. Trudeau’s office directed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to take action – only that she was pressed to do so and declined. Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, also spoke to Ms. Wilson-Raybould about the case in December, his office said, but has declined to say if other PMO staffers also talked to her about efforts by SNC-Lavalin to get a settlement. Company representatives met 50 times with the government on the topic of “justice” and “law enforcement" since the beginning of 2017, including 14 times with Mr. Trudeau’s staff.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould has declined to speak about whether attempts were made to press her to abandon the prosecution, citing solicitor-client privilege.
“I respect her view that due to [solicitor-client] privilege she cannot comment or add [comment] on matters recently before the media,” Mr. Trudeau said on Monday
He also offered another reason for staying quiet, noting that "we are bound by cabinet confidentiality.”
Mr. Trudeau pointed to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s continued membership in his cabinet as an indicator to Canadians that she is not unhappy with his government.
“Her presence in cabinet should actually speak for itself,” Mr. Trudeau said. He welcomed the ethics commissioner’s investigation, saying it would demonstrate to Canadians they can “continue to have trust in our system.”
Mr. Trudeau also revealed he has asked Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s replacement as justice minister and attorney-general, David Lametti, to look into whether his government might waive solicitor-client privilege to allow the B.C. MP to speak freely on the matter.
Trevor Farrow, who teaches at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, said he was not surprised the Prime Minister would ask for advice before waiving the privilege.
“It’s not a small step. It’s not something that happens every day. I think any client would want to know the ups and downs. Presumably, the Prime Minister is taking a serious look at what this might look like for other similar kinds of cases.”
He said Mr. Trudeau could waive the privilege and set the parameters of what Ms. Wilson-Raybould is free to say.
“Because the government owns the privilege, presumably the government could define what part of the privilege they’re willing to waive.”
For instance, the Prime Minister could limit it to discussions between him and the former attorney-general and leave out PMO officials.
Prof. Farrow said he would like to see the privilege waived.
“Getting information to the public on this is a good idea. Because what’s at stake is not simply this case – it’s trust in the system generally.”
The reason for solicitor-client privilege, for individuals and governments, is to allow full and frank discussions so clients can receive good legal advice, he said.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former Saskatchewan judge who teaches at the Peter A. Allard School of Law in Vancouver, said she would like any waiver to be extended to outside legal advice the attorney-general may have obtained on the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
An ethics commissioner’s investigation could take upwards of six months and not be made public until after the October general election. The Conflict of Interest Act grants authority to the ethics commissioner to summon witnesses and to compel them to provide evidence under oath.
Mr. Cullen and Mr. Angus asked Mr. Dion last Friday to investigate the allegations.
The House of Commons Justice Committee will meet on Wednesday to vote on a call by Conservative and NDP MPs to hold parliamentary hearings and to summon top PMO staffers, including Mr. Butts, senior Quebec adviser Mathieu Bouchard and Ms. Wilson-Raybould. The Liberals have enough seats on the committee to prevent any such move.
“Canadians demand answers, and these five Liberal MPs can make sure they get them,” deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt said. “They have a duty to put the interests of the country ahead of their party, and Conservatives are calling on them to do so on Wednesday.”
Since The Globe reported the allegations, unnamed Liberals have been quoted in news reports saying Ms. Wilson-Raybould is difficult to get along with, known for berating fellow ministers openly at the cabinet table, and even untrustworthy.
The controversy has prompted two Liberal MPs to speak out.
Liberal MP Wayne Long is also calling for an investigation by the justice committee.
“I believe that a full and transparent investigation is necessary,” he said in a statement. “How the law treats individuals or corporations in our society is not, and should never be, incumbent upon the political pressure they can exert upon politicians.”
On Monday, Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes lashed out at the anonymous attacks on Ms. Wilson-Raybould. She defended her as a minister of great integrity.
“As someone on the inside, who knows ... [her], I can tell you she is fierce, smart and unapologetic. When women speak up and out, they are always going to be labelled,” Ms. Caesar tweeted.
Mr. Lametti has said it is still possible to direct the prosecution service to settle the charges against SNC-Lavalin.
Mr. Cullen said the issue may have resulted in Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s demotion to veterans affairs last month.
He said Liberal operatives are attempting to smear Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s performance even though she was widely seen as credible and competent in the justice portfolio.
“We urge Mr. Trudeau’s team to stop trying to discredit Ms. Wilson-Raybould and to commit to fully co-operate with the ethics commissioner’s investigation,” Mr. Cullen said.
Senior government officials confirmed to The Globe on Friday that discussions were held with Ms. Wilson-Raybould about the SNC-Lavalin case in a bid to help workers who could be affected if the company were convicted.
The officials, who were granted anonymity by The Globe because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Canadians should not conflate or confuse a vigorous debate in the Prime Minister’s Office or among the PMO and members of cabinet over how to handle SNC-Lavalin’s charges with an effort to put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
A robust discussion is not pressure, one official said. Another official said the PMO had every right to raise the case with the justice minister, because a conviction could destroy the company and hurt thousands of workers.
Mr. Lametti used a speech to the Canadian Bar Association on Monday to defend the right of cabinet colleagues to debate matters with the attorney-general.
At the same time, he acknowledged it would be wrong for the political establishment to tell an attorney-general what to do with respect to prosecutions.
“There is a line that cannot be crossed. Telling the attorney-general what his decision ought to be – that would be interference,” he said.