Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo MP Cathy McLeod said she was shocked to hear what she described as “disturbing testimony” from former federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who spoke to the House of Commons justice committee on the SNC-Lavalin scandal Wednesday.
Wilson-Raybould said she came under relentless pressure — including veiled threats — from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his senior staff, the top public servant and the finance minister's office to halt a criminal prosecution of Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
The massive Quebec-based construction and engineering firm is facing bribery-related charges in connection with work it did in Libya when Muammar Gaddafi was heading the country.
Wilson-Raybould told the committee she believes she was shuffled out of the prestigious justice portfolio to veterans affairs in January because she refused to give in to pressure to allow SNC-Lavalin pay a fine via deferred prosecution, or a remediation agreement, a type of plea bargain that would allow the company to avoid the potentially crippling impact of a criminal conviction.
The Liberal MP for Vancouver-Granville, made the stunning and detailed accusations, breaking three weeks of silence on the affair that has rocked the government, prompting her resignation from cabinet and the departure of Trudeau's most trusted adviser.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, speaking immediately after Wilson-Raybould's testimony, said Trudeau had lost the moral authority to govern the country and called for the prime minister to resign. He also called for a police investigation of Wilson-Raybould's claims.
McLeod reiterated Scheer’s call for Trudeau’s resignation, describing the pressure detailed by Wilson-Raybould as inappropriate and “possibly illegal.”
In response to Wilson-Raybould’s allegations, Trudeau maintained he and his staff “always acted appropriately and professionally. I therefore completely disagree with the former attorney general’s characterization of events.”
McLeod said her jaw dropped when she heard the prime minister’s rebuttal.
“I thought he would come out and he might be a little bit ashamed, that he might of apologized. He has done none of that and it’s shameful,” McLeod said.
She said she believes Wilson-Raybould over Trudeau because the former justice minister made a comprehensive statement under oath that was accompanied by documentation she kept over the last few months.
Wilson-Raybould told the committee she was “hounded’” for months to end the prosecution for months after the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, rejected the idea of negotiating a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin and long after she had unequivocally declared she would not direct Roussel to reverse her decision.
“For a period of approximately four months, between September and December of 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada,'' she told the committee.
Wilson-Raybould said she didn't consider resigning at the time and didn't directly raise her concerns with Trudeau after Sept. 17, when she first informed him that she believed it would be inappropriate for her to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin matter.
Trudeau has said there were vigorous discussions within government about the SNC-Lavalin case, but that he repeatedly assured Wilson-Raybould a decision on intervening to halt the prosecution was hers alone.
Wilson-Raybould disputed that version of events, saying Trudeau only offered vague assurance after she confronted him directly at the Sept. 17 meeting, two weeks after Roussel had decided not to consider a remediation agreement.
“The prime minister asked me to help out, to find a solution here for SNC, citing that if there was no (remediation agreement], there would be many jobs lost and that SNC would move from Montreal,'' Wilson-Raybould said.
She said she explained the law to Trudeau and told him she “had made up my mind” to not intervene with Roussel. But she said Trudeau and Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick continued to express concerns, with Wernick noting that Quebec was holding an election in a couple of weeks and Trudeau stressing that he, himself, was a Quebec MP.
“I was quite taken aback,” she said, adding she looked Trudeau in the eye and asked: “Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the attorney general? ... The prime minister said, 'No, no, no, we just need to find a solution.’”
Wilson-Raybould detailed instances of what she considered inappropriate pressure by Finance Minister Bill Morneau's chief of staff and others, but said the pressure campaign escalated over the fall, even after SNC-Lavalin went to court to challenge Roussel's rejection of a remediation agreement.
Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff, Jessica Prince, was eventually summoned to an urgent Dec. 18 meeting with Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, and his principal secretary, Gerald Butts. Citing text messages from Prince sent to her immediately after the meeting, Wilson-Raybould said the prime minister's top two aides wanted her to hire an external legal expert, possibly a retired Supreme Court justice, to give an opinion on the appropriateness of directing Roussel to reverse her decision on the SNC-Lavalin prosecution.
When Prince suggested that would be interference, Butts purportedly said, “Jess, there is no solution here that does not involve some interference.”
Telford said an external legal opinion would give the government “cover” and allow Trudeau to say he was doing something. She also offered to line up op-eds in the media supporting a decision to intervene in the prosecution, according to the texts.
But the most egregious pressure came the following day, on Dec. 19, when Wilson-Raybould said she received what she deemed to be three “veiled threats” from the clerk of the Privy Council, Wernick, that she could lose her job.
The country's top civil servant last week told the justice committee he believes there was no improper pressure applied to Wilson-Raybould by him or anyone else.
According to Wilson-Raybould, Wernick told her that Trudeau wanted to know why SNC-Lavalin was not being offered a remediation agreement. She said he told her that the prime minister was “going to find a way to get it done one way or the other” and that it was not good for the attorney general to be “at loggerheads” with the prime minister.
In all, Wilson-Raybould said pressure was exerted on her or her staff by 11 people through approximately 10 phone calls, 10 meetings and numerous emails and text messages. She said they repeatedly raised concerns about the risks to SNC-Lavalin's viability the company was to be convicted of corruption and fraud in relation to work it sought in Libya.
Moreover, Wilson-Raybould said they were worried the company might decide to move its operations out of Quebec, affecting last fall's provincial election in Quebec and potentially hurting more Liberals in the province, including Trudeau, in the federal election this fall.
She said she was told repeatedly the decision was up to her, but added attempts to talk her into a remediation agreement were relentless.
Wilson-Raybould said she didn't speak directly to Trudeau about SNC-Lavalin again until Jan. 7, when he informed her he was about to move her out of the justice portfolio and she suggested it was the result of her refusal to intervene in the prosecution, which he denied. She accepted a move to veterans’ affairs on Jan. 14 and did not resign from cabinet until Feb. 11, five days after an anonymously sourced allegation that she had been improperly pressured first surfaced in the Globe and Mail.
In Wednesday’s response, Trudeau reiterated the decision surrounding SNC-Lavalin was Wilson-Raybould’s to make and that they had conversations of the potential loss of 9,000 jobs and pensions. He said jobs and the economy are key issues for his government and it’s his job as prime minister to defend Canadian workers.
“The government likes to say, ‘We were worried about jobs.’ What was clear from her [Wilson-Raybould’s] statement was they were worried about electoral concerns and a favoured company,” said McLeod.
When asked if he agreed he or someone in his office or cabinet should resign, Trudeau said Canadians will have a choice about who they want to be prime minister and form government in the Oct. 21 general election.
Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has not called for Trudeau’s resignation, but said he believed Wilson-Raybould due to the level of detail in her testimony and called for a public inquiry.
Trudeau said he welcomed an investigation by the ethics commissioner “to clear the air on this matter.”
Asked if Wilson-Raybould could remain in the Liberal caucus and be allowed to run as a Liberal in the election, Trudeau said he hasn’t had time to review her entire testimony and will do that before making any final decision.
— with files from the Canadian Press