Liberal MPs are debating whether to expel Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from caucus this week as the SNC-Lavalin controversy continues to dominate the Parliamentary agenda nearly two months after revelations of political interference in the criminal prosecution of the company came to light.
Discussions among Liberals about the fate of the two MPs have been intense since they resigned from cabinet and accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and top advisers of putting pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she was attorney-general to abandon the bribery and fraud prosecution of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. over its business dealings in Libya.
Cabinet ministers and MPs signalled their displeasure on Monday with Ms. Wilson-Raybould for recording a telephone conversation in late December with Michael Wernick, the country’s top bureaucrat.
“When the top lawyer in the country and the Clerk of the Privy Council are having a conversation about something very important, it is totally inappropriate to record without notifying the other person,” Transport Minister Marc Garneau told reporters. “It is not an honourable thing to do.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said on Monday that she doesn’t feel she should be ejected from caucus.
“I do not believe that I should be removed from caucus for doing my job and doing what I believe is right,” she told reporters on Parliament Hill late on Monday, according to CTV News.
The opposition parties are refusing to let the political controversy die even after the Liberal majority scuttled a House of Commons justice committee inquiry into the SNC-Lavalin affair and blocked the House ethics committee from investigating. It has been nearly eight weeks since The Globe and Mail reported that the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould as attorney-general to order a settlement that would allow the Montreal construction and engineering giant to avoid a criminal prosecution.
On Monday, Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre vowed to use several days allotted for budget debate to talk about the SNC-Lavalin affair instead, saying he would keep speaking until the Liberals reopen the justice committee inquiry.
“I will stop speaking and cede the floor when Justin Trudeau ends the cover-up and allows all the players to testify in his scandal,” Mr. Poilievre said.
The Liberal national caucus executive met on Sunday to discuss whether to remove Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott, and the discussions continued among regional chairs on Monday evening. A decision is expected when the national caucus meets this week.
“We know there are going to be delicate conversations that we are going to have this week,” Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said. “I was disappointed by the taping. My humble opinion is if you are going to be taping a conversation with a colleague, advise them that the conversation is being taped.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said in a submission to the House justice committee on Friday that she taped the conversation, without Mr. Wernick’s knowledge, because she did not have a staffer present to take notes and “given the ongoing pressure and attempts to interfere in the [SNC-Lavalin] case.”
In the Dec. 19, 2018, telephone conversation, Mr. Wernick told Ms. Wilson-Raybould that Mr. Trudeau wanted the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin to be shelved and “was going to find a way to get it done one way or another.” This exchange took place only a few weeks before Ms. Wilson-Raybould was removed as justice minister and attorney-general.
In the conversation with Mr. Wernick, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she was trying to protect Mr. Trudeau from charges of political interference, especially after the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, had decided not to negotiate a settlement with SNC-Lavalin.
Liberal MP Rob Oliphant told reporters on Monday he does not “feel safe in caucus” with Ms. Wilson-Raybould there.
“And so I would want caucus to act,” he said. “I don’t want my conversations recorded and I don’t want to feel that someone doesn’t have confidence in the government."
Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly suggested Ms. Wilson-Raybould has not been acting like a team player, particularly by taping Mr. Wernick: “She will have to explain why she did that and whether that was ethical.”
However, some were unsure whether it is the best course of action to expel Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
Treasury Board President Joyce Murray, who replaced Ms. Philpott when she resigned, said caucus needs to have a “thoughtful conversation” on the matter. “I think that Ms. Wilson-Raybould has explained the context of that … I am optimistic that we will have a positive outcome.”
Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said he’s keeping an open mind. “As many members of caucus, I am open to debate and discussion and I am going to listen to what other folks have to say before I form my own, final opinion.”
Ms. Philpott angered Liberal MPs the day after the March 20 caucus meeting, when she told Maclean’s magazine that Canadians need to know “the whole story” of what she called an “attempt to politically interfere with the justice system in its work on the criminal trial” of SNC-Lavalin.
She said the government attempted to “shut down” the SNC-Lavalin affair, and added “there is still a substantial amount of her [Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s] story that’s not out there.”
Ms. Philpott told Maclean’s she is keen to talk about a Jan. 6 meeting she had with the Prime Minister in which they discussed his plans to shuffle Ms. Wilson-Raybould out of the post of justice minister and attorney-general.
“I spoke to the Prime Minister on January the sixth about SNC-Lavalin’s desire to have a DPA [deferred prosecution agreement],” she said. “I think Canadians might want to know why I would have raised that with the Prime Minister … Why would I have felt that there was a reason why the former minister Wilson-Raybould should not be shuffled.”
In Montreal on Monday, the preliminary hearing to test the evidence against SNC-Lavalin resumed amid heightened awareness from the parties involved that the stakes have climbed in recent weeks.
François Fontaine, a lawyer with Norton Rose Fulbright representing the company, opened his arguments by asking Justice Claude Leblond of the Quebec Court to ignore the intense public debate and political fallout happening outside the courtroom.
“I feel the need to start by saying that the accused have been in the media abundantly over the past several weeks," Mr. Fontaine told the judge. "And as you know, justice is blind in the sense that what’s important is what happens here before you and that everyone is equal before the law.
“I know you will not be influenced. But given the magnitude of what is circulating and what is being said, I feel the obligation to remind the court that what is to be decided here is to be based on the arguments and evidence presented here.”
Evidence in the case remains under a publication ban. Final arguments concluded on Monday and the judge set May 29 as the next court date. He could render a decision about whether to proceed to trial at that time.
The hurdle for going to trial is considered low in Canada and amounts to whether there is any evidence on which a jury could convict. “It’s a charges-screening mechanism,” according to Alan Sarhan of Bretton Woods Law Canada. “[They’re saying] are we wasting the resources of the courts or not? If the answer is no, then they will proceed.”
In 2015, the RCMP charged SNC-Lavalin with paying US$48-million in bribes to Libyan officials and defrauding various Libyan organizations of US$130-million. Two years earlier, the World Bank had banned the company and its affiliates from taking part in World Bank-financed contracts for up to 10 years because of “misconduct” – conspiracy to pay bribes – related to the multibillion-dollar contract to build the Padma Bridge in Bangladesh.