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Politics Top bureaucrat Michael Wernick resigns over SNC-Lavalin affair

Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, prepares to testify before a House of Commons justice committee in the Wellington Building, in Ottawa, on March 6, 2019.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s top bureaucrat tendered his resignation as Clerk of the Privy Council on Monday after conceding he had lost the “trust and respect” of the opposition parties over his role in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

The surprise resignation of Michael Wernick comes as the Liberal majority on the House of Commons justice committee announced late Monday that it does not want further hearings on the SNC-Lavalin matter, despite calls from the opposition to have a second round of testimony from former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Mr. Wernick, who played a key role in seeking to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution, had faced opposition demands to step down after giving uncharacteristically blunt and opinionated testimony for a public servant before the House justice committee, where he defended the government’s handling of the dispute with Ms. Wilson-Raybould.

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It is the fourth high-level departure from the Liberal government since The Globe and Mail first reported on Feb. 7 that the Prime Minister’s Office had put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould in the fall of 2018 to order federal prosecutors to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with the Montreal-based engineering and construction company. In January, she was demoted to Veterans Affairs and replaced as Justice Minister and Attorney-General by Montreal MP David Lametti, who has not ruled out granting a deferred prosecution to SNC-Lavalin.

In the ensuing political fallout, Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned and Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, stepped down last month. On March 4, Jane Philpott resigned as Treasury Board president, citing a lack of confidence in the Prime Minister for the way he handled the SNC-Lavalin matter.

On Monday, Mr. Trudeau named veteran B.C. MP Joyce Murray as the new Treasury Board President.

In testifying twice before the committee, Mr. Wernick revealed that he, other officials and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeatedly warned Ms. Wilson-Raybould of the economic ramifications of an SNC-Lavalin criminal conviction, but he denied she was subjected to “inappropriate” pressure.

“Recent events have led me to conclude that I cannot continue as Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to Cabinet during the upcoming election campaign,” Mr. Wernick wrote in his retirement letter to Mr. Trudeau. “It is now apparent that there is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the opposition parties.’”

Mr. Wernick said he also could not fulfill the role of “impartial arbiter” and head of a five-member panel of senior public servants that was recently set up to guard against foreign interference in the October general election.

In her own testimony on Feb. 27, Ms. Wilson-Raybould alleged Mr. Wernick made “veiled threats” toward her in a phone call on Dec. 19, 2018, and put pressure on her to follow the Prime Minister’s preference for a deferred prosecution agreement. He later denied that characterization of the phone call, but said he did not have a detailed recollection of what transpired because he wasn’t “wearing a wire.”

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP MP Charlie Angus had called for the resignation of Mr. Wernick. In a March 4 letter to the Prime Minister, Mr. Angus said the clerk had “become a central player in a very political controversy that may have included attempts to obstruct the work of the independent public prosecution service."

In his second round of testimony on March 6, Mr. Wernick revealed he had “retained personal counsel” because of a letter the Conservative Leader had sent to the RCMP on Feb. 28 to request a criminal investigation into the Liberal government’s efforts to help SNC-Lavalin, which is facing fraud and bribery charges related to allegedly corrupt dealings in Libya.

The Globe reported Friday that outside legal counsel have also been retained by Mr. Trudeau and the Prime Minister’s staff, including chief of staff Katie Telford, Quebec adviser Mathieu Bouchard and senior adviser Elder Marques.

Mr. Trudeau’s communications adviser, Cameron Ahmad, told The Globe that outside lawyers will offer advice on the Ethics Commissioner’s probe into the SNC-Lavalin matter. He declined to say if the lawyers are helping Mr. Trudeau and his staff in relation to Mr. Scheer’s letter to the RCMP.

A 38-year veteran of the public service, Mr. Wernick will be replaced in the role of clerk by Ian Shugart, who currently serves as deputy minister of foreign affairs. Mr. Shugart will take over the job in the coming weeks as well as Mr. Wernick’s spot on the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol group.

Mr. Wernick’s retirement announcement came shortly before the Prime Minister told the House of Commons he had named former Liberal justice minister Anne McLellan as a special adviser on issues raised by the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

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However, Ms. McLellan will not be investigating whether there was improper political interference.

Ms. McLellan’s key mandate is to determine whether the dual role of justice minister and attorney-general should be divided into two separate posts. In Britain, the attorney-general does not sit in cabinet to avoid being subject to political pressure.

“In particular, Ms. McLellan will assess the structure that has been in place since Confederation of a single minister holding the positions of minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada,” Mr. Trudeau told the House. “She will also analyze … the role of public servants and political staff in their interactions with the minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada.”

Mr. Scheer scoffed at the appointment of Ms. McLellan and called on the Prime Minister to allow the justice committee to recall Ms. Wilson-Raybould.

“Remember, on Feb. 7, the Prime Minister said that all these allegations were completely false,” Mr. Scheer told the House. “If the Prime Minister want to restore confidence, he can let the former attorney-general complete her testimony starting tomorrow [Tuesday] at the justice committee.

The Liberal-dominated Justice committee will meet Tuesday – the day of the federal budget – to vote on whether to call further witnesses, but the five Liberal MPs on the committee wrote to the Liberal chair late Monday to say there was no need to hear again from Ms. Wilson-Raybould.

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“As committee members, we have achieved our objectives with respect to these meetings,” the MPs wrote, saying the matter should now be left to Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion to investigate.

NDP MP Murray Rankin, a member of the committee, accused the Liberals of preventing Canadians from learning more about the government’s attempt to interfere in the justice system.

“They say that ‘We have achieved our objectives with respect to these meetings.’ Yes they have,” Mr. Rankin said. “Their entire objective has been to contain the political damage. This is outrageous. Canadians are still in the dark.”

Ms. Wilson-Raybould has said she has more to say about the matter, particularly the time period between her demotion in early January and her resignation from cabinet on Feb. 11.

She has asked the Prime Minister to give her another waiver from solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality to talk about conversations with Mr. Trudeau that led to her resignation from cabinet.

In his first appearance in the Commons since his election as a B.C. MP, Jagmeet Singh called for a public inquiry and noted the anti-bribery unit of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is monitoring the controversy.

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“For Canadians watching at home, this does not look any different than when the Conservatives were in power,” he said. “Special access for powerful corporations; a closed door for everyone else.”

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