Two of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top aides were at a key meeting in late December with former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff where the SNC-Lavalin criminal prosecution was discussed.
The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed on Saturday that Chief of Staff Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, the then-principal secretary, met on December 18 with Jessica Prince, who was Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff at the time.
Mr. Butts, who was Mr. Trudeau’s closest friend and most trusted adviser, suddenly resigned last Monday, saying he quit to protect the PMO from charges of political influence in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. He rejects any suggestion that he or anyone in the PMO put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
The Globe and Mail reported Feb. 7 that officials in the PMO put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she was justice minister and attorney general to reach a negotiated settlement with SNC-Lavalin on criminal charges the company faces over its business dealings in Libya.
The company had been lobbying officials in Ottawa to secure a “deferred prosecution agreement” or “remediation agreement,” under which it would accept responsibility for the wrongdoing and pay a financial penalty, relinquish benefits gained from the wrongdoing and put in place compliance measures.
In the ensuing fallout from The Globe report, Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet and Mr. Butts stepped down. Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has launched an inquiry into the matter.
Michael Wernick, the Privy Council Clerk, told the House of Commons Justice committee on Thursday that the Dec. 18 meeting was one of three conversations that he predicted the former justice minister had concerns about in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin cases.
Cameron Ahmad, the communications director to Mr. Trudeau, told The Globe and Mail on Saturday that Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford were at the Dec. 18 meeting with Ms. Prince and no one else from the PMO. He would not divulge what was discussed or why Ms. Wilson-Raybould may have been troubled by that conversation.
Mr. Wernick told MPs that Ms. Wilson-Raybould also had concerns about a Sept. 17 meeting with her, himself and Mr. Trudeau as well as a separate conversation that the privy council clerk had with her on December 19.
Mr. Wernick confirmed for the House Justice Committee Thursday that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was unwilling to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin despite repeated efforts by Mr. Trudeau and other senior officials to revisit the company’s pending criminal prosecution on fraud and corruption charges.
The Clerk’s testimony revealed that officials repeatedly raised the economic ramifications of an SNC conviction -- despite the fact that the law prevents the attorney-general from considering that factor in this particular case -- but was not subjected to “inappropriate pressure” to shelve the prosecution of the Quebec engineering company. Under Canada’s new deferred-prosecution agreement rules, prosecutors are not allowed to consider national economic interests when deciding whether to settle with a company that faces charges under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act.
“If you boil it down for Canadians as to what is going on here with the facts that we have and all of the facts that I know from my participation in meetings and conversations, we are discussing lawful advocacy,” Mr. Wernick told the committee MPs.
All of these conversations took place after Kathleen Roussel, the director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, had informed SNC-Lavalin on Sept. 4 that she would not negotiate a settlement and would instead proceed to trial.
The attorney-general can issue a directive to the director about a prosecution or even assume conduct of a prosecution, but in a Sept. 17 meeting with Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Wernick recalled that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would not consider directing Ms. Roussel to enter into negotiations with SNC-Lavalin.
“She advised the Prime Minister of her view that a deferred prosecution agreement was not a good course and she had no intention of intervening – and indeed she never has intervened,” Mr. Wernick said.
Mr. Wernick said he believes the former attorney-general felt pressure to make the right decision.
“I am quite sure the minister felt pressure to get it right. Part of my conversation with her on Dec. 19 was conveying context that there were a lot of people worried about what would happen, the consequences – not for her – the consequences for the workers in the communities and the suppliers.”
The Prime Minister said on Friday that Canadians should pay careful attention to top bureaucrat’s testimony in which Mr. Wernick said Ms. Wilson-Raybould may have felt pressure to “get it right” on the SNC-Lavalin file but denied that anything he or others said amounted to “inappropriate pressure.”
Mr. Trudeau declined, however, to say whether he knew of Mr. Wernick’s entreaties to Ms. Wilson-Raybould in a conversation they had on Dec. 19.
Mr. Trudeau, asked about the matter during a visit to Newfoundland, said Mr. Wernick "is an extraordinary public servant who has served this country and continues to serve this country under governments of different political stripes with integrity and brilliance.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould has not given her version of what transpired, saying she is bound by solicitor-client privilege. She has hired former Supreme Court of Canada justice Thomas Cromwell to advise her on what she can say when she is expected to testify before the Justice committee this week.