The Trudeau government is considering changes to ethical procurement rules that stipulate how long a company can be banned from bidding on federal contracts, a revision of policy that one expert says could offer Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin another means of coping with the fraud and corruption charges it faces.
SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec engineering giant at the centre of the Wilson-Raybould affair, faces the charges stemming from an RCMP investigation into its business dealings in Libya. If convicted, it could be banned from bidding on federal contracts for 10 years.
Public Services and Procurement Canada is proposing granting itself more flexibility in deciding how long a company is banned from bidding when convicted.
SNC-Lavalin has been seeking a negotiated settlement in which a company admits wrongdoing and pays a fine, but avoids a trial. Last September, however, the federal director of public prosecutions rejected the request and informed the company the prosecution would continue.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office have denied putting inappropriate pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould when she was justice minister and attorney-general on the case. In the ensuing fallout, she resigned from cabinet and Gerald Butts, principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, stepped down. Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has launched an inquiry into the matter.
Even if SNC-Lavalin is convicted, a rewrite underway at Public Services could eliminate a one-size-fits-all punishment period for companies found guilty of offences that run afoul of the federal Integrity Regime. This is a set of rules to address how to treat companies convicted of offences such as corruption, bribery, bid-rigging and money laundering, rules that have evolved over the past decade to ensure Canada “does business only with ethical suppliers,” according to Public Services’ website.
Public Services held a 33-day public consultation last fall on a proposed new “ineligibility and suspension policy” that would leave it to officials in the department to set the ban period.
These proposed new rules say the Registrar of Ineligibility and Suspension at Public Services will decide what length of suspension applies, taking into account “the seriousness of the conduct … balanced against the steps taken by the [company] to ensure that similar conduct does not recur." Other factors to be considered include the extent to which senior management at the company were involved in the offences for which the firm was convicted; whether the company is a repeat offender; the steps the firm has taken to address the wrongdoing; and whether it has implemented remedial measures.
The revised policy circulated for consultation by Ottawa included a statement saying the department expected this would take effect “in early 2019.”
A Public Services spokesman this past weekend said the department is still reviewing what it heard from Canadians.
"We have consulted on amendments to the current policy, one of which would give flexibility in suspension decisions,” Charles Drouin, a spokesman for Public Services said. “We are currently analyzing feedback received during the consultation.”
Public Services could not immediately answer whether this revised policy – that has yet to be approved – could be of help to SNC-Lavalin.
Timothy Cullen, an Ottawa-based lawyer at McMillan, said the revised policy could be applied to SNC-Lavalin if it is convicted on the charges it faces.
“Under the new policy, whenever it takes effect … yes, it is quite possible that under the new policy they could receive lesser or no suspension,” he said, adding it’s not yet known how the department will wield this policy.
Mr. Cullen said the department would also take into account the conduct of SNC-Lavalin since the charges were laid and its co-operation with authorities and other factors.
SNC-Lavalin could not be reached Sunday for comment on this proposed procurement policy revision.
The Montreal firm faces one count of corruption under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act and one count of fraud under the Criminal Code. It’s 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.
The list of companies that currently face procurement bans by Ottawa is very small – three firms – and includes no major companies.
Opposition MPs are urging the House of Commons justice committee to call Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s former chief of staff Jessica Prince to testify about a key meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top advisers.
The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed on Saturday that chief of staff Katie Telford and Mr. Butts met Dec. 18 with Ms. Prince, who was Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff at the time, says it appears pressure was also exerted on her staff.
“It now seems that [Ms. Prince] also has been subject to perhaps inordinate pressure by getting her to work on Jody so this may be more indication of the level of pressure on Jody,” NDP MP Murray Rankin said of Ms. Prince.
Michael Wernick, the Privy Council Clerk, told the House of Commons justice committee last Thursday that the Dec. 18 meeting with Ms. Prince was one of three conversations that he predicts the former justice minister has concerns about.
All of these conversations took place after Kathleen Roussel, the director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, had already informed SNC-Lavalin on Sept. 4 that she would not negotiate a settlement and would instead proceed with prosecution.
Mr. Wernick confirmed in testimony last week 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 question of the company’s pending criminal prosecution on fraud and corruption charges.
He said the former justice minister and attorney-general was warned several times about the economic consequences of a criminal conviction of SNC-Lavalin. He denied, however, that she was subjected to “inappropriate pressure” to shelve the prosecution.
Ms. Prince accompanied Ms. Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs in Jan. 14 when she was demoted and lost the plum post of justice minister in a cabinet shuffle.
Normally, the chief of staff remains behind when their minister is shuffled – to provide continuity. Ms. Prince, however, was replaced as chief of staff to new Justice Minister and Montreal MP David Lametti by Rachel Doran. Ms. Doran had worked in the Prime Minister’s Office as a policy adviser and was part of the brain trust of previous Ontario Liberal governments that included Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford.
Mr. Butts, one of Mr. Trudeau’s closest friends and most trusted adviser, suddenly resigned Feb. 18, while denying allegations that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office applied political pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to settle criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould is expected to testify to the justice committee at 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday. She retained former Supreme Court of Canada justice Thomas Cromwell to advise her on what she can say without violating solicitor-client privilege.