Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadians should pay careful attention to top bureaucrat Michael Wernick’s testimony this week in which the Clerk of the Privy Council said former attorney-general Jody 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. Wernick confirmed for the House of Commons 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.
Mr. Trudeau, asked about the matter Friday 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. He is someone whom we need to heed very carefully when he chooses to express himself publicly.”
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.
The committee hearings were called after The Globe and Mail reported Feb. 7 that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to reach a negotiated settlement with SNC-Lavalin on criminal charges the company faces under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act 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, Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet, and Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, stepped down. Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has launched an inquiry into the matter.
All of this 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.”