Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become embroiled in scandalous allegations of public misconduct that threaten his ability to retain power over Canada’s Liberal Party government ahead of elections scheduled for later this year.
Trudeau is alleged to have pressured former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the prosecution of the Montreal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, a large government contractor that is one of the Liberal Party’s largest corporate donors. She was removed from that office less than three months after refusing to intervene in that prosecution.
The firm SNC-Lavalin was charged with money laundering, bribery, and fraud in connection with $48 million in payments to officials in Libya under Moammar Gadhafi. If convicted, the firm would be blocked from federal contracting opportunities for a decade.
Trudeau has denied improprieties but has refused to allow Wilson-Raybould, who is bound by attorney-client privilege, to speak publicly about her interactions with the Prime Minister’s Office and Trudeau’s Principle Secretary Gerald Butts, widely regarded as Trudeau’s heavy-handed political enforcer.
SNC-Lavalin had been aggressively lobbying key government officials to create a legal mechanism through which the firm could avoid criminal prosecution in exchange for a negotiated deal with prosecutors to take remedial actions, including forfeiting illicit profits and installing a new governing board. That legal mechanism was quietly inserted into the budget bill last year, giving SNC-Lavalin precisely what it had been lobbying for over the past three years.
In a conference call with investors last year, the firm’s chairman told shareholders that the firm had been lobbying for and expecting passage of the provision. The Trudeau government has touted these ‘Remedial Agreements’ as a measure that could improve compliance and corporate culture while giving prosecutors more flexibility “to secure effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties for corporate wrongdoing.”
Use of such deferred prosecution agreements is at the discretion of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Last October the office informed SNC-Lavalin that no special deal was coming. Executives publicly lamented that prosecutors refused to “open negotiations” without “offering feedback”.
“Canadians owe Jody Wilson-Raybould a debt of gratitude for holding true to her principles and protecting the rule of law when her political masters implored her to abandon it,” Conservative opposition leader Andrew Scheer wrote in an open letter published in The National Post.
Scheer has called on Trudeau to waive solicitor-client privilege and wants nine key officials to testify before a Justice Committee investigation, including Butts and Trudeau’s Cheif of Staff, Katie Telford.
On Monday, the Prime Minister insisted that he did not direct Wilson-Raybould to come to any particular conclusion on whether to direct the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to sign an agreement with SNC-Lavalin, but Trudeau does not deny ‘a heated debate’ inside the cabinet regarding the company.
“She confirmed for me a conversation we had this fall where I told her directly that any decisions on matters involving the director of public prosecutions were hers alone,” Trudeau said, after traveling to British Columbia to meet twice privately with Wilson-Raybould, who he demoted to Minister of Veterans Affairs late last month.
Wilson-Raybould has been tight-lipped and was absent from a press event that Trudeau had scheduled near her riding on Monday morning.
“I respect her view that, due to privilege, she can’t comment or add on matters recently before the media. I also highlight that we’re bound by cabinet confidentiality. In our system of governance, her presence in cabinet should speak for itself,” Trudeau said. “I continue to have full confidence in Jody.”
When Trudeau was asked if he would waive solicitor-client privilege to allow the former Attorney General to speak openly, Trudeau said he has asked current Attorney General David Lametti, the man he tapped to replace Wilson-Raybould, to provide advice on the matter.
He said solicitor-client privilege is “not a simple issue.”
By Tuesday morning, Trudeau told his cabinet ministers that Wilson-Raybould had resigned as Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defense, which she offered “with a heavy heart”.
In addition, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion confirmed possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act, including contravention of Section 9, which prohibits public office holders from trying to influence decisions that could “improperly further another person’s private interests.”
In recent days, members of the Liberal Party — including staffers of the Prime Minister — have been privately disparaging Wilson-Raybould to press outlets. Officials have offered quotes without attribution to major press outlets that accuse the Attorney General of being “difficult to work with” and “hard to trust” noting that she had four chiefs of staff in as many years, and attended merely one indigenous caucus meeting.
The view of her from outside the government is far more flattering — well known in Vancouver as exceptionally smart and exceptionally driven. Her father is a well known Kwakwaka’wakw Chief who helped get Indigenous title to land and treaty rights enshrined in the Constitution Act of 1982.
Chief Bill Wilson, once told Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin, that his daughters were going to be prime ministers one day.
Wilson-Raybould leaves a significant legacy as Justice Minister and Attorney General, having spearheaded historic changes in federal law, including physician-assisted suicide and recreational marijuana. She is a former Crown prosecutor.