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Politics Severity of SNC-Lavalin allegations likely why settlement was denied, minister says

The seriousness of the criminal allegations against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. likely explains why federal prosecutors did not cut an out-of-court settlement with the Montreal-based engineering company and why the former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould refused to intervene on the file, a federal minister said.

However, Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough said there remains a case for a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with SNC-Lavalin because corporate crimes can prove hard to prosecute. In such a negotiated settlement, a company admits wrongdoing and pays a fine, but avoids a trial and conviction.

Ms. Qualtrough is a key player in the federal government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file, given her department is in charge of banning companies from bidding on federal contracts when they run afoul of the federal integrity regime.

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In accordance with the law, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) has not released its rationale for refusing to enter into a DPA with SNC-Lavalin, but Ms. Qualtrough suggested the company’s behaviour played a large part in the fact it will be heading to trial later this year despite its lobbying campaign for an out-of-court settlement.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her position as justice minister and attorney-general in January. The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 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 PPSC and stay prosecution of SNC-Lavalin in favour of a DPA. She resigned as minister of veterans affairs on Feb. 12, hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that her continued presence in cabinet was an indication that she was not unhappy with government.

Jane Philpott resigned as president of the Treasury Board after Mr. Trudeau defended his government’s handling of the matter and rejected Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s allegations that she suffered inappropriate pressure on the issue of SNC-Lavalin.

During an appearance on CTV’s Question Period on Sunday, Ms. Qualtrough was asked whether her government believes SNC-Lavalin deserves a deal even though it faces allegations of corruption on major projects in Canada and Libya, and allegedly hired prostitutes for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s son, Saadi, in Montreal in 2008.

“In fact I would say quite the opposite. Everything you just listed is probably the rationale, or part of the rationale behind both the prosecutor and the attorney-general not going down this path,” she said.

Ms. Qualtrough added that entering into a DPA might nonetheless be a way to ensure the company pays a price for its alleged infractions to Canadian laws.

“I mean, these trials can absolutely fall apart. Corporate crime is hard to prove. A DPA would grant, in some way, a guaranteed punishment for a company that might get off criminally,” she said.

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The matter is currently in the hands of Attorney-General David Lametti, who replaced Ms. Wilson-Raybould in January.

Ms. Qualtrough’s comments come as her department of Public Services and Procurement Canada is looking at ways to allow companies to continue to bid on federal contracts despite being convicted of offences such as corruption, bribery, bid-rigging and money laundering. Currently, companies lose access to federal contracts for 10 years, but the department would have more flexibility in determining the length of a ban under the new system.

The director of Public Prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, decided last year to pursue the criminal case against SNC-Lavalin despite a new law that allowed for negotiations through a DPA. While she said she felt pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene, Ms. Wilson-Raybould refused to issue a directive under which the PPSC would have launched negotiations with SNC-Lavalin around an out-of-court settlement.

Last week, Mr. Trudeau said he did not realize there was an “erosion of trust” between his office and Ms. Wilson-Raybould during the fall of 2018, and promised to improve communications channel between his office, his cabinet and the Liberal caucus.

“There are conversations that were experienced differently. I regret, and we will ensure that we have measures to improve the functioning of my office and the way in which we engage with ministers and members of the caucus,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters.

Mr. Trudeau said there is no final decision on whether he will allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott to remain in the Liberal caucus. The chair of the Liberal caucus, Francis Scarpaleggia, said a majority of MPs agree that they can remain Liberal MPs.

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“The fact that they want to stay in caucus and want to run under the Trudeau Liberal banner in the fall, those two things speak for themselves,” Mr. Scarpaleggia said.

SNC-Lavalin faces one count of corruption under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act and one count of fraud under the Criminal Code. It is alleged that the company 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.

The justice committee of the House has so far heard testimony on this matter from Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Mr. Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and two high-ranking bureaucrats, including Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick.

The committee will hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss bringing Ms. Wilson-Raybould back to speak further about the government’s effort to put pressure on her to shelve the criminal prosecution of the company.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also called on the justice committee to invite Ms. Wilson-Raybould for a second appearance, arguing she needs to be able to speak about the events surrounding her resignation as minister of veterans affairs and to respond to Mr. Butts’s testimony.

“It’s not fair that Justin Trudeau is silencing his accuser while allowing his defenders to speak freely and fully. Ms. Wilson-Raybould must be allowed to complete her testimony. Ministers don’t resign from cabinet for nothing, especially when the matter at hand involves political interference by the Prime Minister himself in a criminal prosecution,” Mr. Scheer said at a news conference on Sunday.

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Mr. Scheer added he is skeptical about the federal government’s insistence that it had to intervene in this matter because up to 9,000 jobs would be at risk if SNC-Lavalin is convicted at trial. Instead, he argued, the government was trying to help a company based in Quebec and win seats in the province in the next election.

“The jobs excuse has been debunked,” he said. “It’s quite clear this was politically motivated.”

Ms. Qualtrough said on Question Period that it is impossible to state the number of jobs that would be in jeopardy if SNC-Lavalin is convicted at its coming trial and loses the right to bid on public contracts.

“History would tell you that when corporations are convicted, jobs are lost, sometimes companies go bankrupt, sometimes their headquarters leave the country, so the potential of job loss is a significant factor,” Ms. Qualtrough added. “You know what, can we tell you exactly the precise number? No. But we can tell you that jobs are in jeopardy, and that’s enough that it warrants consideration.”

Mr. Trudeau was in Florida on Sunday for a holiday with his family. The Trudeaus have rented accommodations for the week and had the trip approved by the Ethics Commissioner before their departure.

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