A continuing RCMP investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair appears to have delayed an inquiry by Canada’s lobbying watchdog into whether improper lobbying took place on behalf of the Quebec construction and engineering giant.
The Globe and Mail has reported that the RCMP are determining whether there is enough evidence to launch a criminal investigation into possible obstruction of justice by senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office who pressed the attorney-general in 2018 to order a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. on fraud and bribery charges.
The examination is in the hands of the RCMP’s national division, which is in charge of sensitive cases. The lead investigator, Sergeant Fred Pincince, has spoken with some players in the matter in the past couple of months, according to sources who The Globe is not identifying so they could talk about the inquiry.
In an appearance before the House of Commons ethics committee on Monday, lobbying commissioner Nancy Bélanger was asked by NDP MP Charlie Angus if she had made progress on his 2019 request to investigate SNC-Lavalin and its representatives under Section 6 of the Code of Conduct for Lobbyists.
That section says: “A lobbyist shall not propose or undertake any action that would place a public office holder in a real or apparent conflict of interest.”
Mr. Angus alleges that SNC-Lavalin breached the law through its repeated lobbying in a bid to persuade officials in the Prime Minister’s Office to help the company avoid criminal prosecution over its business dealings in Libya.
Last year, independent watchdog Democracy Watch asked the commissioner to investigate whether Kevin Lynch, a former clerk of the privy council, violated the Lobbying Act and the code of conduct by failing to register as a lobbyist for SNC-Lavalin. It also asked that she investigate whether former SNC-Lavalin chief executive Neil Bruce violated the code by not taking effective steps, as the responsible senior officer for the company, to ensure Mr. Lynch’s lobbying was registered.
In a report released in August, federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by improperly pressing Jody Wilson-Raybould when she was attorney-general to instruct the director of the Public Prosecution Service, Kathleen Roussel, to grant a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin. In December, a division of SNC-Lavalin pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed to pay a $280-million fine.
In a carefully worded response to Mr. Angus’s question, Ms. Bélanger told MPs she could not talk about SNC-Lavalin’s lobbying and indicated it was owing to an RCMP inquiry.
“I cannot confirm anything in relationship to investigations that I conduct and it is really because I need to ensure the integrity of all investigations, including that of the RCMP,” Ms. Bélanger said. “I cannot be talking to all the witnesses at the same time as the RCMP.”
Ms. Bélanger told MPs that when she has reasonable grounds to believe someone she is investigating has committed an offence, she must stop the case at that point and refer the matter to a “peace officer, most often the RCMP.”
She added: “I don’t complete those investigations that I send to the RCMP, I suspend them and then I wait for them to do something – whether they send it back to me or whether they have a charge.”
Ms. Bélanger’s senior media adviser said once the RCMP has dealt with the matter, the commissioner can complete the investigation and report the findings to Parliament.
Mr. Angus said he believes Ms. Bélanger clearly signalled on Monday that she’s referred an alleged lobbying infraction to the RCMP.
The RCMP also declined to comment when asked for details of its investigations. “Unfortunately, we are not in a position to confirm anything in that regard at this time," the media relations unit at the RCMP’s National Division said in a statement.
Mr. Trudeau’s communications director, Cameron Ahmad, said he had no knowledge of whether the RCMP has spoken to members of the government who were involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
University of Ottawa law professor Jennifer Quaid said she can’t comment on what the RCMP might be doing, but said: “She’s being extremely careful about what she says, and yet at the same time is trying to say as much as she can say.”
Prof. Quaid said it’s clear from Ms. Bélanger’s testimony that the only opportunities the watchdog has to report on any investigation is when it is concluded or has resulted in some outcome.
“She obviously would have liked to say, ‘Look, the RCMP still have it … . And I haven’t heard from them and I’d like to tell you more and I’d like to tell you who it involves, and I’d like to tell you what charges, but I can’t,’ ” she said.
A SNC-Lavalin spokesman said the company is very transparent about representations to government.
“We have always stated that our lobbying activities are a matter of public record,” Nicolas Ryan said.
A 2019 report on the firm’s website regarding its lobbying and political activities says SNC-Lavalin engages with public officials “in a proactive, honest, responsible, sustainable, transparent and accountable manner.”