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Politics Gerald Butts on the SNC-Lavalin affair: What you missed from Wednesday’s hearings, and what it means

Watch the full opening statement from Gerald Butts, former top aide to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at Wednesday's hearing of the House justice committee.

The highlights

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s best friend and former top aide denied Wednesday that Jody Wilson-Raybould was inappropriately pressed to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case. Gerald Butts, speaking to the House justice committee, instead said that she hadn’t voiced her concerns until after she left the attorney-general’s job: “I firmly believe nothing inappropriate occurred here and nothing inappropriate was alleged to have occurred until after the cabinet shuffle.”
  • Last week, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she told Mr. Trudeau of her decision not to reach an out-of-court settlement with SNC in mid-September, but Mr. Butts said he learned that for the first time when she testified last week. He also disputed her understanding of the law and when a final decision on directing prosecutors is actually final.
  • Mr. Butts also addressed for the first time events after January’s cabinet shuffle, which Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she couldn’t talk about because of the limited scope of the order-in-council allowing her to speak. He claimed that Ms. Wilson-Raybould had been offered the Indigenous Services ministry but she turned it down because of concerns about enforcing the Indian Act. Liberal MPs blocked an effort by the opposition to invite Ms. Wilson-Raybould back to give her side of those events.
  • The committee also questioned Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin, both of whom had appeared at the committee before, but were called back after Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony raised new questions. Mr. Wernick reaffirmed that, in his view, the efforts to change her mind were “lawful advocacy.” But the committee also heard that he talked in October with SNC chairman Kevin Lynch, who voiced his frustration with the top bureaucrat about Ottawa’s refusal to negotiate out of court.

Who is Gerald Butts, and how did he get here?

Dec. 9, 2016: Gerald Butts looks at his boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at a first ministers meeting in Ottawa.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

A month ago, Gerald Butts was at the right hand of power in Canada. He was principal secretary to Justin Trudeau, the old McGill University friend whose political career and public image he guided all the way to the prime ministership. Then The Globe and Mail was first to report allegations that the Prime Minister’s Office had pressed the former justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to settle a case out of court with Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, charged by federal prosecutors with corruption and fraud. She refused to overrule the prosecutors who wanted to go to trial. Months later, she was reassigned to Veterans Affairs.

Soon after the allegations broke, Ms. Wilson-Raybould quit cabinet and Mr. Trudeau had a political crisis on his hands. Mr. Butts tried on Feb. 18 to defuse that crisis by stepping down, while also denying “that I or anyone else in [the PMO] pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould.” A week later, Ms. Wilson-Raybould, freed in part from the solicitor-client privilege that kept her from speaking, gave a bombshell account to the House justice committee. She accused Mr. Butts, Mr. Trudeau, Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and others of repeatedly and inappropriately urging her to settle because it could help the party’s political future in Quebec, where SNC’s headquarters is. The next day, Mr. Butts wrote to the committee chairman asking for a turn to speak once he had secured legal advice about what he could say.

BUTTS AND FRIENDS: MORE READING ON THE WHO’S WHO OF SNC

Explainer: The story so far of SNC-Lavalin, Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau’s PMO

From the archives: Gerald Butts: The BFF in the PMO

What are the PMO and PCO, and what do they do? A guide

A closer look: The 11 people Wilson-Raybould said were involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair

Butts vs. Wilson-Raybould: How their accounts differ

Mr. Butts and Ms. Wilson-Raybould diverge sharply on the timeline of events and the characterization of some contentious meetings between the justice minister’s staff, the PMO, the Privy Council Office and the Finance Minister’s staff. Here is Mr. Butts’s written opening statement, which is slightly longer and more detailed than the one he delivered in person at the committee; here is Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s written statement and a guide to The Globe’s full coverage of her testimony. You can also review a list of the 11 people Ms. Wilson-Raybould singled out as being involved.

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Feb. 27, 2019: Jody Wilson-Raybould prepares to testify before a House of Commons justice committee hearing.

Blair Gable

On when she decided not to intervene

When federal prosecutors were considering whether to reach an out-of-court deal (called a “deferred prosecution agreement”) with SNC last year, they ruled out that option by September. According to court documents obtained by The Globe, SNC was informed of the decision on Sept. 4 by Kathleen Roussel, the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s version: The former justice minister says she was told of the DPP’s decision on Sept. 4, did her due diligence and then made up her own mind two weeks later, informing the Prime Minister of it on Sept. 17:

The Prime Minister asks me to help out – to find a solution here for SNC – citing that if there was no DPA there would be many jobs lost and that SNC will move from Montreal. In response, I explained to him the law and what I have the ability to do and not do under the Director of Public Prosecutions Act around issuing Directives or Assuming Conduct of Prosecutions. I told him that I had done my due diligence and made up my mind on SNC and that I was not going to interfere with the decision of the DPP.

Mr. Butts’s version: He said Wednesday that he didn’t know Ms. Wilson-Raybould had made up her mind before Sept. 17 until she said so on Feb. 27. He also challenged her understanding of the law and when a final decision was actually final:

I learned for the first time while watching the former Attorney-General’s testimony that she had made a final decision on the 16th of September. My understanding is that nobody in the PMO or PCO knew that at the time either. In fact, it is not to my knowledge how the law works. My understanding, which was informed by the public service and lawyers in the PMO, is that the Attorney-General’s power to direct the DPP extends until the time a verdict is rendered. My further understanding is that the Attorney-General is free to take advice on the decision until that point, and is obligated to bring fresh eyes to new evidence.

Mr. Wernick’s version: Later Wednesday, Mr. Wernick weighed in on the timeline issue when questioned by MP Lisa Raitt. Asked if he agreed that Ms. Wilson-Raybould had decided by Sept. 17, he said “I accept that on Sept. 17 she had made a decision” but, because she could still lawfully take advice on the decision, it was not “final in law.”

Elder Marques, an adviser in the Prime Minister's Office, shown in his LinkedIn profile photo.

Handout

On a second opinion

Ms. Wilson-Rayboud’s version: Ms. Wilson-Raybould described how, on several occasions, PMO staff suggested that she get an outside legal opinion on whether a DPA was the appropriate option. Here’s one exchange on Sept. 19 between two PMO aides and her chief of staff, Jessica Prince, in which Ms. Prince questioned whether outside advice constituted interference:

My Chief of Staff had a phone call with Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques from the PMO. They wanted to discuss SNC. They told her that SNC have made further submissions to the Crown, and ‘there is some softening, but not much’. They said that they understand that the individual Crown prosecutor wants to negotiate an agreement, but the Director does not. They said that they understand that there are limits on what can be done, and that they can’t direct, but that they hear that our Deputy Minister (of Justice) thinks we can get the PPSC to say “we think we should get some outside advice on this.” ... They asked my Chief if someone has suggested the outside advice idea to the PPSC, and asked whether we are open to this suggestion. They wanted to know if the DM can do it. In response, my COS stressed to them prosecutorial independence and potential concerns about interference in the independence of the prosecutorial functions.

Mr. Butts’s version: Mr. Butts stressed repeatedly in his testimony that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with asking for outside advice. Here’s what he said in his opening statement:

... we felt that outside advice was appropriate because of the extraordinary consequences of a conviction. The fact that the company involved employs so many people across the country heightened the public importance of the matter. This view was informed by counsel from the public service. That was the entirety of our advice to the Attorney-General, which we made clear she was free to accept or not. We also made clear that, if the Attorney-General accepted our proposal and took external advice, she was equally free to reject or accept that advice.

On the ‘informal reachout’

Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s version: Ms. Wilson-Raybould said that, after the Sept. 19 meeting with Ms. Prince, Mr. Bouchard and Mr. Marques called her again and floated the idea of informally reaching out to Ms. Roussel, which she rebuffed:

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Later that day my COS had a phone call with Elder Marques and Mathieu Bouchard from the PMO. They wanted an update on what was going on regarding DPAs since “we don’t have a ton of time”. She relayed my summary of meeting with PM/Clerk. They raised the idea of an “informal reach out” to the DPP. My COS said that she knew I was not comfortable with it, as it looked like and probably did constitute political interference. They asked whether that was true if it wasn’t the AG herself, but if it was her staff or the DM. My COS said “yes” it would and offered a call directly with me. They said that “we will regroup and get back to you on that.”

Mr. Butts’s version: Under questioning by MPs on Wednesday, Mr. Butts said he had never heard of such an exchange, and disputed whether it happened:

I know the people involved. I work with them closely. I know the file closely. It just doesn't ring like something they would do on this or any other matter.

Ottawa's Chateau Laurier, where Mr. Butts and Ms. Wilson-Raybould had dinner on Dec. 5, 2018.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

On the Dec. 5 dinner

Their accounts differ sharply about when Ms. Wilson-Raybould told the PMO, and Mr. Butts specifically, that she felt the pressure she was being subjected to was inappropriate. Mr. Butts told MPs he didn’t find out she was uncomfortable until after she was shuffled out of the justice portfolio in January.

One event in particular illustrates the divergence. Both testimonies describe a Dec. 5 meeting between Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Mr. Butts at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier hotel. In her version of events, she told him the PMO was “hounding” her and her staff, and that he steered the conversation back to SNC and the need for “a solution":

I wanted to speak about a number of things – including bringing up SNC and the barrage of people hounding me and my staff. Towards the end of the meeting I raised how I needed everyone to stop talking to me about SNC as I had made up my mind and the engagements were inappropriate. Gerry then took over the conversation and said how we need a solution on the SNC stuff – he said I needed to find a solution ... Gerry talked to me about how the statute was set up by Harper that that he does not like the law…(Director of Public Prosecutions Act) – I said something like that is the law we have ...

But Mr. Butts said he didn’t recall being told that PMO staff were behaving badly, and said he stressed that the decision was hers alone:

We talked briefly about the idea of asking a retired Supreme Court chief justice for advice, but I noted that I had no expertise in the matter. I believe the “Harper” comment she referred to was in the context of that discussion. She said that what Elder and Mathieu were proposing had never been done before. ... I said that it was her call, and I knew it was her call. I have no memory of her asking me do anything, or to speak with staff about any aspect of the file. At no time did the former Attorney-General suggest that Elder and Mathieu had done anything wrong.
There was nothing remotely negative about the exchange from my perspective. In fact, I walked away from dinner thinking it was the best discussion we had had in a while.

On the Dec. 18 meeting with Jessica Prince

Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s version: Ms. Prince met PMO staff again on Dec. 18, this time with Mr. Butts and Katie Telford, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. Afterward, Ms. Prince texted Ms. Wilson-Raybould an account of the conversation, which she included in her Feb. 27 testimony:

Basically, they want a solution. Nothing new. 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. ... I told them that would be interference.
Gerry said “Jess, there is no solution here that doesn’t involve some interference.” At least they are finally being honest about what they are asking you to do! Don’t care about the PPSC’s independence. Katie was like “we don’t want to debate legalities anymore.” … They kept being like “we aren’t lawyers, but there has to be some solution here”.’

Mr. Butts’s version: Mr. Butts acknowledged that the meeting happened, but denied that Ms. Prince had been “urgently summoned,” as Ms. Wilson-Raybould said, and that the discussion about the job impact on SNC was appropriate:

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I remember that meeting very, very differently than the account given last week. I remember Ms. Prince saying that the Minister didn’t want to consider “political factors” in the decision, and was worried about the appearance of political interference. I said that it is the Minister’s decision of course, but 9000 people are not a political issue. It was a very real public policy issue, in my view. I said that we needed to provide a rationale either way she decided, and I could not see how having someone like [former Supreme Court chief justice] Beverley McLachlin give the Minister advice constituted political interference.

On the op-eds

Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s version: Ms. Wilson-Raybould said that, at the Dec. 19 meeting, Ms. Telford told Ms. Prince that, if Ms. Wilson-Raybould were concerned about public outcry against a DPA, they “would of course line up all kinds of people to write op-eds saying that what she is doing is proper.”

Mr. Butts’s version: In his written testimony, Mr. Butts denied that she was suggesting any sinister attempt to manipulate public opinion:

On the op-ed point, she was simply saying that we would do our best to support the Minister, whatever decision she chose to make in this matter.

And in his written testimony, he suggested the promotion of friendly opinion pieces in newspapers was a common political practice. (Here’s a reality check from The Globe’s Simon Houpt on whether that’s true.)

It's not a sophisticated tool in politics to ask your supporters to support you. It's a common practice ... that whatever position a party or the opposition party is taking, they seek out supporters in the free press.

Jan. 14, 2019: Ms. Wilson-Raybould stands between Mr. Trudeau and Governor-General Julie Payette at her swearing-in ceremony as Veterans Affairs minister.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

On the cabinet shuffle

This is where the accounts differ the most, because Ms. Wilson-Raybould didn’t address them at all. In her understanding of the order-in-council allowing her to speak, she said it only covered her time as justice minister, and not her tenure in Veterans Affairs, her resignation or anything after that. She challenged the government openly on that point. Mr. Butts, meanwhile, said he understood the order differently and freely gave his own timeline of the cabinet shuffle and its aftermath. He insisted that SNC was not a factor in the shuffle, which he attributed instead to Scott Brison’s resignation from the government:

Let me say at the outset, categorically: the January Cabinet shuffle had absolutely nothing to do with the SNC-Lavalin. In fact, I spent at least as much time working with colleagues to prevent the shuffle from happening as I did in preparing my advice for it.

In Mr. Butts’s account, Ms. Wilson-Raybould was offered the Indigenous Services ministry but refused it because “she had spent her life opposed to the Indian Act, and couldn’t be in charge of the programs administered under its authority.” It was for this reason that she was offered Veterans Affairs instead. Mr. Butts stopped short of suggesting that Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s discontent was a result of the cabinet shuffle, but when asked if he thought it was a mistake to move her, he said this:

I think that the government was put in a very difficult position ... the Prime Minister made, I think, a well-informed decision about the cabinet shuffle and had everybody on the team done what the Prime Minister asked of them, then I think we would not be having this conversation today.

The lobbying question

One of the other major questions about the SNC affair is what the company was doing to press the PMO and public service about its court case. Lobbying records obtained by The Globe showed 19 contacts between SNC and the PMO since the start of 2017, and extensive communications on the topics of justice and law enforcement. Officials contacted included Mr. Butts, Mr. Wernick, Mr. Trudeau’s senior Quebec adviser and even the Canadian ambassador to the United States. The records also showed lobbyists’ meetings with federal officials had nearly doubled in volume since the previous Conservative government.

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Mr. Butts didn’t go into any detail about the lobbying on Wednesday, though he did deny that he had ever spoken with Frank Iacobucci, the former Supreme Court judge serving as SNC’s lawyer. In his testimony, Mr. Wernick, the PCO chief, said that he had a phone call on Oct. 15 with SNC’s chairman, Kevin Lynch – himself a former Privy Council clerk in the 2000s – in which Mr. Lynch “expressed his frustration” that no DPA was forthcoming and asked if something could be done. Mr. Wernick told Mr. Lynch he should take his concerns to Ms. Wilson-Raybould and the prosecutors. Mr. Lynch couldn’t be immediately reached by The Globe for comment on Wednesday.

Drouin and Wernick back in the hot seat

March 6, 2019: Deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin and Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick prepare to testify before the justice committee.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Wednesday also brought two familiar faces back to the justice committee: Mr. Wernick, the Privy Council Clerk, and Nathalie Drouin, the deputy justice minister. Both of them had testified before, but the committee wanted clarification on allegations Ms. Wilson-Raybould made.

What Wernick said

Mr. Wernick took aim at criticism that his previous testimony on Feb. 21, where he called the PMO’s actions “lawful advocacy,” had been motivated by partisan politics. “I am profoundly disappointed to be accused of partisanship by people who have never met me,” he said. He acknowledged reminding to Ms. Wilson-Raybould in September about the upcoming Quebec election, but said this was not for partisan reasons, but rather to give Ms. Wilson-Raybould context before she made her decision. He also denied Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s claim that he issued her “veiled threats" in a meeting between them and Mr. Trudeau.

Mr. Wernick also told the committee: “I accept that on Sept. 17 she had made a decision [on SNC-Lavalin] but the decision was never final in law.” In a tense interaction with Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, Ms. Raitt asked Mr. Wernick how he can’t see how inappropriate it is that SNC-Lavalin has what seems to be special access to the government. “Is that a problem?” Ms. Raitt asked. Mr. Wernick’s response: “No.”

What Drouin said

Describing her working relationship with Ms. Wilson-Raybould as a positive one, Ms. Drouin explained how she had learned of the prosecutor’s decision in September to go ahead with the case against SNC. She then gave Ms. Wilson-Raybould written advice in general terms about what DPAs involved, none of which constituted pressure to make one decision or another. She also recounted how Mr. Wernick was the first to tell her on Jan. 11 that there would be a cabinet shuffle, and while she wasn’t told who the new justice minister would be, she knew that SNC was “a live issue for the new minister to be made aware of” and had discussions to that effect with Ms. Prince, who she thought would remain as the minister’s chief of staff.

Reaction so far

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was the first opposition leader to speak out against Mr. Butt’s testimony saying that “what we heard today in no way addressed the scandal, in no way puts to rest the questions Canadians have.”

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Watch: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh criticized testimony by Gerald Butts to a committee about the SNC-Lavalin affair.

On the Conservative side, Ms. Raitt, the deputy leader, took aim on Twitter at Mr. Butts’s suggestion that Ms. Wilson-Raybould could continue to be pressed on the SNC file because he felt the decision wasn’t final in law. She said that set a dangerous precedent:

What happens now?

The justice committee isn’t the only group on Parliament Hill looking into the SNC affair: There’s also an investigation by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, which Mr. Trudeau has said Canadians can put their trust in. It’s unclear when Mr. Dion will issue his findings.

Meanwhile, the opposition leaders want something with a broader scope and tougher consequences for any wrongdoing, such as a judicial inquiry. Last week, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer even tried to get the RCMP involved, though Ms. Wilson-Raybould has not accused the government of doing anything illegal.

Within the Liberal caucus, Mr. Trudeau and his supporters are trying to stop a widening political crisis that has already claimed two cabinet ministers: First Ms. Wilson-Raybould, and then Treasury Board president Jane Philpott, who quit on March 4, saying she had “lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.” Liberal MPs canvassed by The Globe last week mostly declined to answer how they felt about the issues raised by Ms. Wilson-Raybould, though most who did answer were generally supportive of Mr. Trudeau.

Commentary and analysis

Campbell Clark: Canadians must now judge who is more credible: Gerald Butts or Jody Wilson-Raybould

Konrad Yakabuski: Gerald Butts’s master class in taking down an adversary

John Ibbitson: Butts, Wernick testimony ensures SNC-Lavalin will hang over Liberals until election

Lori Turnbull: Butts is trying to be a martyr. Voters are smarter than that

Adam Radwanski: Nobody saw the Trudeau-Butts story ending this way. But is it really over?

Compiled by Globe staff

With reports from Evan Annett, Steven Chase, Michelle Zilio and Robert Fife

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