The Liberal government says it played no role in the settlement of criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin 10 months after a political scandal over the prosecution of the Montreal engineering giant ensnared Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inner circle.
The Prime Minister defended his conduct Wednesday while acknowledging he could have handled the SNC-Lavalin file better.
“Obviously, as we look back over the past year and this issue, there are things we could have, should have, would have done differently had we known, had we known all sorts of different aspects of it,” he said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press. “This process unfolded in an independent way and we got to an outcome that seems positive for everyone involved, particularly for the workers.”
Justice Minister David Lametti said he learned of the settlement this week.
He said Kathleen Roussel, the director of Public Prosecutions Service Canada (PPSC), informed him on Tuesday that a division of SNC-Lavalin had agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of fraud and will pay a $280-million fine and abide by a three-year probation order.
“This decision was made independently by the PPSC, as part of their responsibility to continually assess and determine the appropriate path for cases under their jurisdiction,” Mr. Lametti said Wednesday. “Canadians can have confidence that our judicial and legal systems are working as they should.”
The case was resolved without the deferred prosecution agreement that the Prime Minister and his top aides had aggressively pushed when they claimed it was necessary to save the company from a ruinous criminal prosecution that could have barred the company from bidding on federal contracts for up to a decade.
The company said Wednesday it “does not anticipate that the [guilty] plea will have any long-term material adverse impact on the company’s overall business.”
The department of Public Services and Procurement did not immediately answer whether the settlement means SNC-Lavalin is spared from a ban on bidding for federal contracts.
University of Ottawa law professor Jennifer Quaid said it’s her understanding Wednesday’s court decision does not trigger a federal ban on SNC-Lavalin bidding on contracts because the offence to which its division pleaded guilty – fraud against an entity other than the Crown – is not one of the crimes that would result in such a debarment.
The bribery charge that SNC had previously faced would have triggered a ban on federal bidding but it was dropped by the federal prosecution service as part of this plea settlement, she said.
The prosecution of the Quebec company triggered a political crisis for the governing Liberals after The Globe and Mail reported that then-attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould was pressed by Mr. Trudeau and senior staff to settle bribery and fraud charges against SNC-Lavalin without a trial, using a new legal measure known as a deferred prosecution agreement.
“The guilty plea by SNC without a DPA is proof that Jody Wilson-Raybould was right to stay the course and that the relentless pressure from Prime Minister Trudeau and his surrogates amounted to interference,” Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole told The Globe.
The Conservatives have accused Mr. Trudeau and his top aides of trying to obstruct justice.
In the new minority Parliament, the opposition parties could force a parliamentary inquiry into SNC-Lavalin’s efforts to avoid a criminal prosecution for fraud and bribery charges and the role played by the Prime Minister’s Office.
“The justification for either the justice committee or the ethics committee to investigate is pretty overwhelming," Conservative MP Peter Kent said. "One would hope the Bloc Québécois and the NDP would support the Official Opposition in getting it done.”
On the eve of the fall election, the RCMP sought and were denied access to cabinet documents and key witnesses involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair with the Trudeau government citing cabinet privilege and confidentiality.
The RCMP would not say Wednesday if they are still examining whether to launch a criminal investigation into obstruction of justice.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould paid a heavy price when she refused to buckle under political pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to grant a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin.
On Wednesday, she said on Twitter: “2019 began with very public questions about the rule of law in our country. I am glad to see it end with that principle being upheld. The justice system did its work. It is time to move forward and for the company to look to its future.”
The Quebec engineering and construction giant had heavily lobbied Mr. Trudeau and the PMO to bring in DPA legislation and renewed its efforts after Ms. Roussel refused to to drop the bribery and fraud charges against the company and allow it to pay fine, without acknowledging any guilt.
When Ms. Wilson-Raybould refused to override Ms. Roussel, the Prime Minister demoted her to veterans affairs minister.
In the fallout from The Globe revelations, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and colleague Jane Philpott resigned from cabinet. Mr. Trudeau later kicked them out of the Liberal caucus and party. Both ran as independents in the Oct. 21 election with Ms. Wilson-Raybould winning her Vancouver Granville riding and Ms. Philpott losing her Ontario seat.
“I have long believed in the essential necessity of our judicial system operating as it should – based on the rule of law and prosecutorial independence, and without political interference or pressure,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould said of Wednesday’s court settlement.
NDP MP Charlie Angus said Ms. Wilson-Raybould deserves the country’s gratitude for refusing to give into the “snake like behaviour of the Prime Minister’s Office to try cut a deal” for SNC-Lavalin.
“I have seen people kicked out of caucus for all manner of things but I have never seen anyone kicked out caucus and a party for standing up for the rule of law,” Mr. Angus said. “If she hadn’t done that, who knows what kind of deal would have been shaken down for SNC-Lavalin.”
Mr. Angus said the Prime Minister and his top aides kept saying the company could go under and that 9,000 jobs could be lost, which never happened.
In a report released in August, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion said Mr. Trudeau and senior officials violated the Conflict of Interest Act by improperly pressing Ms. Wilson-Raybould to order the Public Prosecution Service to grant a DPA to SNC-Lavalin.