Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confronted allegations of political interference by his office on Thursday, saying he did not “direct” Jody Wilson-Raybould when she was justice minister and attorney-general to abandon the criminal prosecution of a Montreal corporate giant.
But he repeatedly refused to say whether his office tried to influence her to do so.
The Globe and Mail reported on Thursday that Ms. Wilson-Raybould had resisted pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to issue a directive to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to shelve court proceedings against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. in favour of a negotiated settlement without trial. Later in the House of Commons, opposition parties called for “full disclosure” of what happened.
The Quebec engineering and construction company has sought to avoid a criminal trial on fraud and corruption charges that stem from an RCMP investigation into its business dealings in Libya. Prosecutors alleged SNC paid millions of dollars in bribes to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011 to secure government contracts. The engineering company says executives who were responsible for the wrongdoing have left the company, and it has reformed ethics and compliance rules.
On Thursday at an announcement on transit funding in Vaughan, Ont., Mr. Trudeau said senior officials in the PMO did not direct Ms. Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case, but he would not say whether they tried to induce her to abandon a prosecution and trial of the Montreal-based corporation.
"The allegations reported in the story are false. At no time did I or my office direct the current or previous attorney-general to make any particular decision in this matter,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters.
The Globe and Mail never reported that officials in Mr. Trudeau’s office had directed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to take action – only that she was pressed to do so and declined.
Asked if the PMO exerted any influence whatsoever, Mr. Trudeau said: “As I’ve said, at no time did we direct the attorney-general, current or previous, to make any decision whatsoever in this matter."
When asked about any conversations his office had with Ms. Wilson-Raybould about the SNC-Lavalin prosecution, Mr. Trudeau would only say “we have a tremendous, positive working relationship with all members of our cabinet.”
Opposition MPs took issue with Mr. Trudeau’s responses during Question Period.
“We have heard the Prime Minister’s very carefully scripted legalistic answer,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told the House of Commons. “But the question is, did anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office at any time communicate with anyone in the former attorney-general’s office on the matter of the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin – yes or no?”
NDP MP Nathan Cullen said Mr. Trudeau offered a “carefully crafted denial that is not a denial at all,” adding: the “Liberals leaned on their own justice minister not to go to trial but to get a plea deal.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who had an accomplished legislative record as justice minister, was demoted to veterans affairs in a cabinet shuffle on Jan. 14. At the time, she released a statement defending her record and saying “our system of justice must be free from even the perception of political interference.”
In the House of Commons on Thursday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould did not respond when Mr. Scheer asked her to confirm whether the PMO had spoken to her about the SNC-Lavalin legal case.
Justice Minister David Lametti was forced to field question after question, and repeated the Prime Minister’s early remarks. At one point, though, he said neither he nor Ms. Wilson-Raybould had received political pressure or a directive to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin matter.
“As the Prime Minister said earlier today, neither the Prime Minister nor his office put my predecessor or myself under pressure nor gave any directives,” he said.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould was asked on the way out of the House of Commons whether Mr. Lametti was correct when he claimed no one had put pressure on her. “I have no comment,” she told The Globe.
Peter Russell, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, praised Ms. Wilson-Raybould for standing up for the independence of the federal public prosecutors service.
“I think Minister Wilson-Raybould is to be congratulated on understanding how important it is to retain the independence of the prosecutor’s office and not relent to any kind of pressure, including that from the political side of her own government,” Prof. Russell said.
“I think she did well and Canada is indebted to her. … I can’t help but express disappointment that the Prime Minister’s Office does not seem to have understood, as it should, that this part of the minister’s job – being responsible for prosecutions – is not subject to cabinet direction,” he said.
Sources say officials from Mr. Trudeau’s office, whom they did not identify, had urged Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister, to press the public prosecution office to abandon the court proceedings.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould trusted the judgment of the public prosecutor and did not believe it was proper for the attorney-general to intervene, especially if there could be any suggestion of political interference, sources say. The sources were granted anonymity to speak directly about what went on behind-the-scenes in the matter.
Since the beginning of 2017, representatives of SNC-Lavalin met with federal government officials and parliamentarians more than 50 times on the topic of “justice” and “law enforcement," according to the federal lobbyists registry. This includes 14 visits with people in the PMO. Those they met included Gerald Butts, principal secretary to the Prime Minister, and Mathieu Bouchard, Mr. Trudeau’s senior adviser on Quebec – whom they met 12 times. Mr. Trudeau’s senior policy adviser, Elder Marques, also met with company representatives.
Kathleen Roussel, the director of the public prosecution service, told SNC on Oct. 10 that it would not be asked to negotiate a remediation agreement. Nine days later, SNC filed for a judicial review of that decision.
In December, Mr. Butts spoke to Ms. Wilson-Raybould about the SNC-Lavalin remediation case, according to Mr. Trudeau’s deputy communications director, Cameron Ahmad. He said the then-justice minister raised the matter with Mr. Butts and he told her to talk to Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, the top federal civil servant.
SNC chief executive Neil Bruce told The Globe on Thursday he is worried about the company’s immediate future because of the legal uncertainty hanging over the business.
“I think [the legal uncertainty] clearly, clearly, affects the short-term future of the company,” he said in an interview on Thursday in London, where the company has just opened a new European headquarters. “I am worried about the damage that these [legal] things continually do to the innocent,” he added referring to employees and shareholders.
Although SNC very much wants to negotiate a settlement to resolve charges of attempted bribery and fraud, Mr. Bruce said he was unaware of any political pressure to get a deferred prosecution agreement. He did not comment on how Mr. Lametti, a Montreal MP, would handle the file.
“We’ve got no visibility about pressure or anything else,” he said. “We’ve no idea what goes on in the Justice Department. They don’t dialogue with us and we don’t dialogue with them.” He added that it was “really important that [the Department of Justice] or the prosecution service pursue the individuals responsible and at the same time try best not to do any harm to the innocent people, and innocent people being defined as employees, shareholders, pensioners.”
The Trudeau government in 2018 amended the Criminal Code to allow remediation or deferred-prosecution agreements that let prosecutors suspend criminal charges against Canadian companies found to have committed wrongdoing.
With a report from Paul Waldie in London