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Politics Liberals reject calls to question Wilson-Raybould, top PMO staffers in SNC hearings

Liberal MP and the House of Commons justice committee chair Anthony Housefather bangs a gavel to start the committee meeting in Ottawa on Feb. 13, 2019.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

The governing Liberals used their voting majority on the House of Commons justice committee to quash opposition efforts to name several key players as witnesses in hearings on the Jody Wilson-Raybould controversy, including the former minister herself, as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s two most senior staff members.

Liberal MPs declined to hear the opposition proposal for the hearings and they rejected all attempted amendments by the Conservatives and NDP. The opposition parties had wanted to call Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and chief of staff, Katie Telford, among others, as witnesses.

Instead, the Liberals passed a motion that would broaden the hearings – away from strictly targeting accounts that the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to shelve a criminal prosecution of engineering giant SNC-Lavalin in favour of a negotiated settlement. This issue will now be folded into a larger study that includes an examination of the settlement option, also called a deferred prosecution agreement, and the Shawcross doctrine, a legal standard the Liberals have invoked in defending their conduct.

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The next step, as dictated by the Liberal motion passed on Wednesday afternoon, calls for a behind-closed-doors meeting on Feb. 19 where parties will discuss whether to add people to the witness list and whether some potential witnesses should not appear before committee because the SNC-Lavalin matter is before the courts.

Opposition MPs accused the Liberals of trying to shut down a genuine parliamentary inquiry into what happened. Ms. Wilson-Raybould quit cabinet earlier this week – only hours after Mr. Trudeau told reporters that her continued presence in cabinet was an indication she was not unhappy with the government. Ms. Wilson-Raybould says solicitor-client privilege prevents her from speaking on the matter.

“It’s a cover-up and it’s becoming clearer by the day,” Conservative MP Michael Cooper said.

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The Globe and Mail reported last week that when she was attorney-general, Ms. Wilson-Raybould had come under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to override the decision of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada and stay prosecution of SNC-Lavalin in favour of a deferred prosecution agreement, also called a remediation agreement – without a trial. The company faces charges of bribing Libyan officials between 2001 and 2011 in exchange for contracts. SNC-Lavalin is seeking a judicial review of the director of public prosecutions’ decision.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen accused the Liberals of trying to hold a “Bird Box” investigation into the Wilson-Raybould matter that is “looking without looking,” likening the situation to a recent Netflix movie that is notable for the fact protagonists navigate through danger while wearing blindfolds.

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Randy Boissonnault, a Liberal member of the Commons justice committee, noted the federal Ethics Commissioner is already probing the matter, and played down the notion that MPs themselves might be able to impartially investigate what happened.

“The role of the justice committee is not an investigative body,” Mr. Boissonnault told the committee, saying "comments from particularly the Conservative opposition demonstrate that, at best, committees of the House of Commons are political theatre that can occasionally achieve good studies.”

Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault says the Commons justice committee should avoid a ‘witch hunt’ such as the one the Conservatives are proposing. The Canadian Press

The Liberal MP accused the Conservatives of trying to mount a “witch hunt" and said Commons committees don’t have the tools or budget to undertake such a “fishing expedition.” He said the committee’s job includes helping Canadians to better understand remediation agreements, which were enacted with the 2018 budget.

Mr. Trudeau repeated his assertion from Tuesday on Ms. Wilson-Raybould, saying that if she had a problem with how the government handled the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, she had a duty to speak up about it earlier.

“Jody Wilson-Raybould and I had a conversation in September in which I emphasized to her that the decisions she makes as attorney-general, particularly in this matter, are her decisions and I was not directing or pressuring her,” he said at a short appearance in Sudbury on Wednesday, according to the CBC. Mr. Trudeau, when asked a question about what the former justice minister told him about why she quit his cabinet this week, left the microphone rather than answering.

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As things stand, only three witnesses have so far been approved for the hearings. Those proposed and voted for by the Liberals include current Justice Minister and Attorney-General David Lametti, deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick.

The motion that the Conservatives and NDP had planned to put forward includes many more names, including Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Ms. Telford, Mr. Butts, as well as Kathleen Roussel, director of public prosecutions, Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques, both senior advisers to Mr. Trudeau, and Jessica Prince, who served as chief of staff to Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she was minister of veterans affairs.

The NDP’s Mr. Cullen proposed a longer list of people who should testify, including Ms. Wilson-Raybould, which the Liberals rejected in a 5-4 vote on Wednesday. He questioned why the Liberals are so intent on studying remediation agreements when this measure was already passed in the 2018 budget.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid suggests that opposition tactics amount to bullying, and chides them for making too much of talks former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould had with the Prime Minister’s Office about the SNC-Lavalin case. The Canadian Press

Anthony Housefather, the Liberal chair of the justice committee, couldn’t say who might be added to the witness list. “It will be discussed on Tuesday. There’s a lot of issues involved around Ms. Wilson-Raybould and privileges associated with her testimony and again I haven’t thought through or discussed with attorneys or other members of our caucus who would be appropriate witnesses so I’m not at a point right now where I can say who will not be called."

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Deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt said she’s not confident the Liberals will add any more key players to the witness roll. “They had an opportunity today to have the three people who have been intimately involved in this issue, who have been reported to be involved in this issue, Gerald Butts, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Mr. Bouchard, the ones that had the most contact with SNC-Lavalin and Jody Wilson-Raybould herself, and they said no.”

In the wake of the Globe reporting and the review launched by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, SNC-Lavalin had its debt rating downgraded on Wednesday by Standard & Poor’s to BBB- from BBB. The agency cited the criminal charges against the engineering and construction giant and the possibility of a 10-year ban from bidding on federal contracts among its reasons for the downgrade.

With reports from The Canadian Press and Reuters

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