Former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould released an audio recording of a conversation with Canada’s top bureaucrat on Friday in which she warned that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “was on dangerous ground” by attempting to politically interfere in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould recorded a Dec. 19, 2018, conversation with Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, in which he told her Mr. Trudeau was in “that kind of mood” and wanted her to shelve the prosecution of the Montreal-based engineering and construction giant.
“He is in a pretty firm frame of mind about this, so I am a bit worried,” Mr. Wernick said. “I am worried about a collision then, because he is pretty firm about this. I just saw him a few hours ago, and this is really important to him."
Ms. Wilson-Raybould replied that she was trying to protect Mr. Trudeau from charges of political interference, especially after the independent director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, had decided to go ahead with the fraud and bribery prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
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“We are treading on dangerous ground here – and I am going to issue my stern warning – because I cannot act in a manner and the prosecution cannot act in a manner that is not objective, that isn’t independent,” she says. “This is the about the integrity of the government. … This is going to look like political interference by the Prime Minister.”
In a statement late on Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office said Mr. Trudeau was not briefed on the Dec. 19 conversation.
However, it said, Mr. Trudeau takes responsibility for the “erosion of trust” with his former minister and now is the time the turn the page on the political controversy.
“All the facts are on the table now, and everyone involved has shared their perspective, including the Prime Minister. We are focused on moving forward as a team on the issues that matter to Canadians and governing in the best interests of the country,” the statement said.
“The Prime Minister took responsibility for the situation and announced several next steps, including external expert opinions on a number of things as they relate to the set of issues raised over the past few weeks."
Ms. Wilson-Raybould acknowledged in the recorded conversation with the top bureaucrat that her tenure as justice minister and attorney-general was jeopardized by standing up to the Prime Minister and refusing to help SNC-Lavalin.
“I am waiting for the … other shoe to drop, so I am not under any illusion how the Prime Minister … gets things that he wants. I am just stuck doing the best job that I can,” she told the clerk as the conversation wrapped up. In January – only weeks after this phone call – she was demoted to Veterans Affairs in a move that she has said she believed stemmed from her decision to reject Mr. Trudeau’s demands to order a negotiated settlement for SNC-Lavalin.
During the 17½ minute telephone conversation, Ms. Wilson-Raybould reminded Mr. Wernick that interfering in the SNC-Lavalin case would send the wrong message in the separate breach-of-trust prosecution of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman and the extradition case of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive Meng Wanzhou. In both cases, the Liberals have denied any political interference was involved.
“We can stand up in the House of Commons on Norman … [or] on extradition and we can talk about the rule of law,” she said. “The cases are not dissimilar – the principle or the integrity of how we act.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she recorded the conversation because she was at home in Vancouver and did not have a staff member on hand to take notes. Transcripts of the audio recording were among 44 pages, including e-mails and text messages, she submitted to the House of Commons justice committee on Friday.
The Liberal-dominated justice committee shut down further hearings in the SNC-Lavalin affair last week. On Tuesday, Liberal MPs on the ethics committee used their majority to defeat an opposition bid to hear testimony from Ms. Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott, who resigned over how the Prime Minister has handled the controversy.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said in a letter to the committee with her submission that she believes she is still prevented from speaking about the time period after her demotion in early January and subsequent resignation from cabinet, and would require the Prime Minister to waive cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege – which he has refused to do.
“If compelled or asked to participate in a judicial, investigative or parliamentary process, I would do so,” she said.
In the recorded conversation, Ms. Wilson-Raybould revealed the Prime Minister’s Office had months earlier been given a copy of Ms. Roussel’s detailed legal reasons for rejecting the idea of a negotiating a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin. The reasons have never been released publicly and the PMO had never acknowledged it knew why Ms. Roussel pressed ahead with the prosecution in early September.
During the December, 2018, phone call, when Mr. Wernick said he was unaware the PMO had that confidential information, Ms. Wilson-Raybould was adamant it had been sent, saying “we have documented evidence in terms of e-mails, et cetera, where that has been provided, so they do have it.”
SNC-Lavalin is facing charges of bribery and fraud connected to construction contracts in Libya. If convicted, it could be barred from receiving Canadian government contracts for up to 10 years.
Mr. Trudeau and top advisers, including Mr. Wernick, pushed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to override federal prosecutors, saying a conviction for SNC-Lavalin could result in the loss of 9,000 jobs and the relocation of the company’s Montreal headquarters outside of Canada.
“This goes far beyond saving jobs – this is about integrity of the Prime Minister and interference,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould told the Privy Council Clerk.
In Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s submission, she also said Mr. Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, tried to use an erroneous story from the Mulroney era to persuade her office to accept direction from the PMO on SNC-Lavalin.
Copies of text messages between the former minister and her then-chief of staff, Jessica Prince, recount how Mr. Butts, who was one of the most senior officials in the PMO, offered what he represented as historical precedent for a prime minister to direct an attorney-general on a legal matter.
Mr. Butts was talking about the wrongful murder conviction of David Milgaard, which was overturned after Kim Campbell, who was justice minister and attorney-general, decided to review it.
“Gerry told some story about how Mulroney met with David Milgaard’s mom, walked into the cab[inet] room and told Kim Campbell she had to fix it. She gave him all these [attorney-general] reasons why she couldn’t interfere but then she ultimately did what Mulroney wanted,” Ms. Prince recounted to Ms. Wilson-Raybould in text messages. “By Gerry’s telling, it was because Mulroney told her that she had to find a solution.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said in her submission she later met with Ms. Campbell, who rejected Mr. Butts’s version.
“She categorically denied what Mr. Butts had said and was quite offended and outraged by the comments. She adamantly denied the characterization not only of her as the attorney-general, but of her former boss, prime minister Mulroney,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould told the justice committee in her submission on Friday.
Ms. Campbell told Ms. Wilson-Raybould that Mr. Mulroney “was much too good a lawyer to intervene improperly in the matter” and “he never breathed a word about the Milgaard case to his attorney-general, nor did anyone in his office ever attempt to influence her handling of the case.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould also said more in her submission about the pressure she has said her office faced from Ben Chin, chief of staff to Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
She recounted that Mr. Chin warned Ms. Prince about raising complaints with ministers regarding him. This came after Ms. Wilson-Raybould had expressed concern to Mr. Morneau about how Mr. Chin and Elder Marques, one of the Prime Minister’s senior advisers, repeatedly pressed her office to shelve the SNC-Lavalin prosecution.
Mr. Chin did not like this, she recalled.
“Your boss spoke to Bill [Morneau] yesterday and said that me and Elder were mucking around on this file,” Mr. Chin told Ms. Prince. “Be careful when using my name, Jess,” he said, according to Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
The B.C. MP testified before the justice committee on Feb. 27 that when she was attorney-general, she had faced “constant and sustained” pressure from the Prime Minister and other top aides to override the prosecutor’s decision.
The issue has dominated Parliament since The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that the Prime Minister’s Office pressed the then-attorney-general to negotiate a settlement with SNC-Lavalin.
In the fallout, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott resigned from cabinet, and Mr. Butts stepped down. On March 18, Mr. Wernick announced he was retiring as Clerk of the Privy Council, saying he had lost the “trust and respect” of the opposition parties over the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the new material from Ms. Wilson-Raybould offers “concrete evidence that proves Justin Trudeau led a campaign to politically interfere in SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution.”
He said the new material demonstrates how loudly Ms. Wilson-Raybould expressed her concern about political interference to senior levels of government.
Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly said if Ms. Wilson-Raybould was worried about political interference, she should have raised it with him. The audio tape shows that she raised it with his top officials, who would have reported it to him, Mr. Scheer said.
“Ms. Wilson-Raybould repeatedly told the Prime Minister and his top officials that their actions were ‘entirely inappropriate’ and amounted to ‘political interference.’ Despite her objections, the Clerk of the Privy Council pressured her and made it clear that her job was on the line,” Mr. Scheer said.
“Justin Trudeau also told Canadians what he knew to be false. He knew that his attorney-general had serious concerns about his plan to get SNC-Lavalin off of serious criminal charges. But he looked Canadians in the eye and told them that no one had raised concerns with him. “
NDP justice critic Tracey Ramsey said the recorded conversation demonstrates “the campaign of political interference” by the Prime Minister and those working for him.
“In 17 minutes, 17 times Mr. Wernick attempts to change her mind. And she could not have been clearer in rebutting him; she could not have been clearer in telling him she felt this was wrong and she identifies it as pressure,” she said.
The NDP has called for a public inquiry and the Conservatives have asked the RCMP to investigate for possible obstruction of justice.
Liberal MP John McKay said he did not believe Ms. Wilson-Raybould made the case for political interference and called for her removal from the Liberal caucus.
“The honourable thing would have been to resign. I don’t think it’s a terribly honourable thing to record a conversation when the other person doesn’t know the conversations being recorded," he said. He also said he can’t see how Ms. Philpott can remain in caucus.
With a report from Janice Dickson