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Politics Trudeau chooses not to be clear on what happened with SNC-Lavalin

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a Liberal Party breakfast event in Toronto on Feb. 1, 2019.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Given the opportunity to address a very serious allegation, Justin Trudeau chose not to be clear.

Oh, he wanted to sound clear, no doubt, so he issued what former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee called a “non-denial denial.”

Mr. Trudeau declared that the allegations reported in The Globe and Mail on Thursday – that his office applied pressure on then-justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to drop the prosecution of engineering company SNC-Lavalin − are “false.” But what the PM was denying was something that was never actually alleged.

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Related: Conservatives, NDP seek to launch investigation into allegations of interference by PMO, Scheer says

Related: PMO pressed Wilson-Raybould to abandon prosecution of SNC-Lavalin

Related: Trudeau says he didn’t direct Wilson-Raybould on SNC-Lavalin case

Did he or his office press or try to influence the justice minister to ask prosecutors to settle the criminal case? The Prime Minister answered that neither he nor his office directed the justice minister to take a particular decision on the case.

But that’s not what he was asked. Nobody asked if he wrote a formal letter directing the attorney-general to defer the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, and instead strike a settlement known as a remediation agreement – essentially a fine and a pledge of good behaviour. He was asked if his office pressed Ms. Wilson-Raybould.

As a radio reporter put it, the second time Mr. Trudeau was asked on Thursday, “Are you saying categorically there was absolutely no influence whatsoever in this?” Mr. Trudeau replied again that at no time did he or his office “direct” Ms Wilson-Raybould. That is practised, specific and narrowly worded legalese.

When asked what kind of discussions he and his office had with Ms. Wilson-Raybould about the case, Mr. Trudeau delivered a content-free response that “we have tremendous, positive, working relationship with all members of our cabinet.”

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His answers were not so clear. The PM didn’t want to talk about whether Ms. Wilson-Raybould was under pressure.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is denying that his office 'directed' former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to help SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal prosecution. The Globe and Mail never reported that officials in Mr. Trudeau’s office had directed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to take action – only that she was pressured to do so and declined.

It’s worth noting: Big decisions about the prosecution came to a head late last year. Ms. Wilson-Raybould was demoted to the Veterans Affairs portfolio in January. Maybe one had nothing to do with the other. But the Prime Minister isn’t being transparent about what happened in the SNC-Lavalin case.

And transparency is the thing here. On the substance, you could make a case for either throwing the book at SNC-Lavalin or letting it settle. But the public should know if the Prime Minister is trying to turn that legal decision into a political one.

This is a blockbuster bribery prosecution. The company is charged with bribing Libyan officials under the regime of late dictator Moammar Gadhafi between 2001 and 2011.

The prosecution is under the purview of the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, whose office was established in 2006 to assure Canadians such cases would be kept at arm’s length from politicians. If the justice minister wants to intervene, he or she has to do it by issuing a directive in writing, on the public record. Even so, they’re expected to make a prosecutorial decision not a political one.

Related: SNC-Lavalin’s CEO frets over short-term effects of company’s legal uncertainty

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Opinion: The SNC-Lavalin revelations show we are not a country bound by the rule of law

There were reasons for the PMO to be worried about the SNC-Lavalin case. A conviction would earn the company a 10-year ban on bidding on public projects. There might be layoffs. There was speculation that it would be a takeover target – and that the head office of this prominent Quebec company could be moved.

There was also a legitimate question about whether the company should face severe sanction now, years later, after changing executives and business practices.

Last year, the Liberal government passed legislation to give prosecutors another option in such cases. It was widely assumed that they had SNC-Lavalin in mind. The new legislation allowed prosecutors to strike a deal that would see companies pay fines and agree to good behaviour, with the threat that the case would be revived if they transgressed again.

That’s not a bad idea, for some cases. But the government told the public that the intention was to give prosecutors an option they could use at their discretion – not a tool to allow the government to steer a case.

Prosecutors chose not to strike a deal with SNC-Lavalin.

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Why? Probably because remediation agreements are really supposed to be a way to encourage companies that have paid bribes to voluntarily come clean, pay a penalty and move on.

But SNC-Lavalin did not volunteer. Letting a company strike such a deal because it is too important to prosecute raises the prospect of what economists call “moral hazard” – if companies know they won’t face serious sanction, they have no incentive to do the right thing.

Mr. Trudeau owes Canadians a full airing of what happened. Was there pressure? Canadians need to know that prime ministers don’t just dip their noses into criminal prosecutions − not without an explanation.

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