Crown prosecutors didn’t provide much of an explanation for dropping the breach-of-trust charge against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, but as far as they did, it seemed to be a hint that they’d just discovered it’s not that unusual for a senior public official to leak.
New (unspecified) information provided by the admiral’s defence team, Crown prosecutor Barbara Mercier said sheepishly, meant prosecutors no longer think they can prove Vice-Adm. Norman’s behaviour was a “marked departure” from what would be expected from a public official in his position. Prosecutors still think his communications “crossed the line,” but, she said, “inappropriate does not mean criminal.”
So there was a leak, but no crime. There was a government that had overreacted to the leak, even letting it affect its decision on a $668-million contract for a Navy supply ship. The whole business should never have gone to trial. It’s a mess. But there’s no evidence that this is another SNC-Lavalin affair.
Maybe Vice-Adm. Norman, who told reporters on Wednesday that he “has an important story to tell,” is planning to reveal something that big. Certainly, there will be public skepticism about the prosecutors’ decision to kill a case that was threatening to embarrass the Liberals.
But let’s remember why the SNC-Lavalin affair was so worrisome: There were allegations that the Prime Minister and his operatives were putting pressure on the attorney-general to change a decision about prosecuting a defendant for bribery.
In this case, Justin Trudeau’s government was the one calling the cops. The Privy Council Office referred the matter to the RCMP, who brought their investigation to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Mr. Trudeau’s government had gone into a tizzy over the leak. They might have acted like it was a crime, but so far there’s no evidence that they asked, or told, or put pressure on the DPP to lay charges. Certainly the DPP said they didn’t.
Let’s go back to what the case is about: the purchase of an oiler ship for the Navy. Without a refuelling vessel, Canadian Navy ships can’t do blue-ocean missions far from port. In its last days, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government signed a precontract for a $668-million lease on a transport ship to be refitted at the Davie shipyard, in Lévis, Que. It was good news for the Navy, and good pre-election news in Quebec.
But soon after the Liberals took power, the cabinet decided to put the deal on hold.
The cabinet decision was leaked to a Davie executive and a CBC reporter. The news story that followed reported that the contract was paused – and noted a competitor, Irving shipyards, had complained about the Davie contract.
The Liberals treated the leak like a five-alarm fire. Unions and people around Lévis complained. There were questions from the press. The Liberals backtracked and let the Davie contract go ahead.
It was a ridiculous overreaction from a brand new government. It would have been possible to justify putting the deal on hold for re-examination – it was a no-bid, $668-million deal to lease a used ship to be worked on at a shipyard in a politically sensitive area. But the Liberals caved. In statements to police, then-Treasury Board president Scott Brison later insisted that the leak prevented the government from doing “due diligence.” But of course, the Liberals had another option: tough it out, and do due diligence whether there’s a leak or not.
It’s hard to say whether the RCMP or prosecutors were swayed by government officials suggesting that the leak was the crime of the century. They always had a weak case, precisely because military officers have been leaking about procurements for ages. They never alleged that Vice-Adm. Norman had any motivation other than getting the Navy a supply ship. But no one, including the admiral’s lawyer, Marie Henein, has made a serious allegation that prosecutors were pressed by the PMO.
There are other allegations, notably the suggestion that Mr. Brison had put the Davie contract on hold because of connections to the Irving family – but he could certainly cite other reasons for a minister responsible for spending controls to take a second look at a $668-million sole-source deal.
Ms. Henein blamed the government for trying to withhold documents with claims of privilege, but that wasn’t done in concert with prosecutors. She led testimony that the defence department hid documents from Access to Information requests. All that needs more answers from Mr. Trudeau. But there’s no evidence yet that he pushed prosecutors to lay charges. They’re the ones that should be explaining why they ever took the case to trial.