The House of Commons justice committee will broaden hearings into the SNC-Lavalin affair to include Gerald Butts, a former top adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as the Liberal government attempts to counter Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony that she was subjected to inappropriate pressure to interfere in the justice system.
But the Liberal-dominated committee voted down opposition party efforts to invite other witnesses, including members of the Prime Minster’s Office, or Jessica Prince, who was chief of staff to Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she was justice minister and attorney-general, or further testimony from the ex-minister herself.
Instead, the committee voted to call back Canada’s top bureaucrat, Michael Wernick, who has already testified that no inappropriate pressure was applied to Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
The justice committee is looking into allegations that top PMO officials and others repeatedly pressed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to order the director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to settle charges of corruption and fraud against the Quebec engineering company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. without a trial.
A day after the former attorney-general gave her account of events in four hours of testimony to the committee, Mr. Trudeau said he totally disagrees with how she characterized discussions she had with him and others about the case. Top ministers echoed the Prime Minister in separate appearances.
Mr. Butts, who resigned as Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary shortly after Ms. Wilson-Raybould quit cabinet, wrote to the chair of the justice committee on Thursday seeking an opportunity to tell his side of the story.
“I respectfully request the opportunity to attend the committee,” Mr. Butts wrote to Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, chair of the committee. “I believe my evidence will be of assistance."
Mr. Butts said he needed a short period of time to seek legal advice “concerning my evidence and to be able to produce relevant documents to the committee.” Mr. Butts has denied putting inappropriate pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould. He has been invited to testify on March 6, and Mr. Wernick and deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin have been invited to return that day as well.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper derided the actions of Liberal MPs on the committee, calling them “agents of the Prime Minister’s Office” who are doing the bidding of Mr. Trudeau’s staff.
On Thursday, Liberals also used their majority on the justice committee to defeat an opposition party proposal to require future witnesses to be sworn in under oath so they could be held liable for perjury if they were later found to have lied.
The Liberals also rejected an opposition effort to ask Mr. Trudeau to waive any remaining constraints that might limit what witnesses can say for reasons of cabinet confidentiality or solicitor-client privilege. Ms. Wilson-Raybould has expressed disappointment that a cabinet order that permitted her to speak without violating solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality does not apply to conversations that took place while she was veterans affairs minister or in relation to her resignation from cabinet.
Mr. Trudeau is set to make a minor cabinet shuffle on Friday to fill the void left by Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she resigned as Veterans Affairs Minister.
On Wednesday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould told the justice committee that 10 meetings and 10 phone calls involving 11 people between September and December, 2018, were all aimed at getting her to “politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney-general of Canada.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she faced “consistent and sustained” political pressure from Mr. Trudeau and top officials, including “veiled threats,” over the need to shelve the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
In her testimony, Ms. Wilson-Raybould recounted notes of a meeting between Ms. Prince, and Mr. Butts and Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford. At this meeting, according to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Mr. Butts said: “Jess, there is no solution here that doesn’t involve some interference,” and Ms. Telford was quoted as saying: “We don’t want to debate legalities any more.”
The Trudeau government’s message on Thursday was marred by comments from B.C. Liberal MP Jati Sidhu, who told The Abbotsford News that Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s actions may have been prompted by her father, a former Indigenous leader.
I just made the following request of the Justice Committee Chair. pic.twitter.com/MUCJwnldui— Gerald Butts 🇨🇦 (@gmbutts) February 28, 2019
“The way she’s acting, I think she couldn’t handle the stress,” he said. “I think there’s somebody else behind – maybe her father – pulling the strings.”
In the Commons, B.C. Conservative MP Mark Strahl lambasted the Liberal MP for “sexist, misogynist comments.” Mr. Sidhu later told the Commons “my comments were inappropriate.”
Earlier in the day, the Prime Minister resisted calls to launch further inquiries into the SNC-Lavalin affair, saying he is confident federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion will settle disagreements over what happened.
Mr. Dion launched an inquiry after The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that the Prime Minister’s Office exerted pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to override a decision by the director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to reject and application from SNC-Lavalin to negotiate a settlement called a deferred prosecution agreement.
In the aftermath, Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet, Mr. Butts stepped down and the Justice committee called hearings into the matter.
“We have an officer of Parliament who is tasked with a specific role to make sure that in questions where there are disagreements amongst politicians, amongst elected officials, there is an arbiter who is empowered to be like a judge, who is an officer of Parliament, who will make a determination in this issue,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Montreal on Thursday.
Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer urged RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki on Thursday to probe the matter.
In a letter, he suggested that what took place was contrary to Section 423.1 (1) of the Criminal Code, explaining that it is illegal to “engage in any conduct with the intent to provoke fear in the attorney-general." Mr. Scheer also pointed to Section 139, saying that attempting to “obstruct or defeat the course of justice” is prohibited.
Mr. Trudeau said the RCMP has not contacted him or government staff regarding SNC-Lavalin.
“To our knowledge, no one has been contacted by the RCMP,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Separately, five former attorneys-general wrote an open letter to the RCMP urging a criminal investigation. Four served in Conservative or provincial Progressive Conservative governments, and one with an NDP government. “Use all resources at your disposal to fully and fairly investigate any potential criminality and provide Canadians with the truth in this crucial matter,” wrote the signatories, including former federal justice minister Peter MacKay.
In her testimony to the justice committee on Wednesday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she does not believe the political pressure amounted to an infraction of the law.
"In my opinion, it’s not illegal. It is very inappropriate depending on the context of the comments made, the nature of the pressure, the specific issues that are raised … [it is] an attempt to compromise or to impose upon an independent attorney-general.”
The former attorney-general in her testimony identified Ben Chin, chief of staff to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, as one of the people putting pressure on her and her office.
She said that two days after the prosecution service told SNC-Lavalin on Sept. 4 it would not get an out-of-court settlement, Mr. Chin e-mailed Ms. Prince to say the company will “leave Montreal, and it’s the Quebec election now – so we can’t have that happen.” Mr. Morneau also discussed the economic consequences of a conviction with Ms. Wilson-Raybould on Sept. 19.
In Toronto, Mr. Morneau denied that Mr. Chin acted inappropriately in discussing the SNC-Lavalin case with Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s staff.
Mr. Morneau said he did not direct Mr. Chin to talk to Ms. Prince, but added that his aide did nothing wrong.
“My staff, of course, is going to be constantly in communication with other teams across the government, always talking about the importance of the economy, always talking about the importance of jobs and that is their appropriate role,” Mr. Morneau told reporters. “I think that Ben was acting entirely appropriately in that capacity.”
Mr. Morneau emphasized that the company employs 9,000 people across the country, and thousands of pensioners depend on its continued operation. It was appropriate to take that into consideration, while respecting the rule of law, he said.
On Thursday evening, MPs held an emergency debate.
Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony was “credible” and “caused a crisis of confidence in the Prime Minister, and in his cabinet, certainly in the Clerk of the Privy Council, in the Minister of Finance.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould detailed a Sept. 17 meeting with Mr. Trudeau and Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick where the Prime Minister brought up the possibility of SNC-Lavalin leaving Quebec and the spectre of job losses during a provincial election campaign.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said that even though she told them she backed the decision of prosecution service director Kathleen Roussel to proceed with the case against SNC-Lavalin, Mr. Trudeau’s senior advisers and Mr. Wernick kept pressing her to order a negotiated settlement. The pressure continued into late December. On Jan. 7, the Prime Minister told her she was being demoted to veterans affairs, which she said she suspected was because of the SNC-Lavalin prosecution.
In a speech to the Empire Club of Canada, Justice Minister David Lametti said his predecessor’s testimony was an extraordinary symbol of transparency in the government. He also said it is useful for the attorney-general to sit at the cabinet table — unlike in some other jurisdictions, where the ministries of the attorney-general and justice are distinct.
With reports from Janet McFarland and The Canadian Press