Following intense criticism of Justice Committee testimony in the House of Commons that was widely seen as unduly partisan for Canada’s top government administrator, Michael Wernick is likely to depart his position as Clerk of the Privy Council in the next several days, sources close to Cabinet tell The Chronicle.
Wernick admitted during hearings on Thursday to pressuring — and to conspiring with others in the Trudeau government to pressure — former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to offer a ‘Deferred Prosecution Agreement’ to one of the Liberal Party’s largest contributors. Despite demands from opposition party members, Wernick did not offer his testimony under oath.
The Ottawa-based political operative inside the Trudeau government tells The Chronicle that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has reached out to Wernick to schedule questioning in the SNC-Lavalin matter. The agency is actively investigating the matter and the PMO is ‘profoundly’ worried that former Treasury Board President Scott Brison may be questioned by the RCMP next week.
An open investigation has been ongoing since SNC-Lavalin’s indictment by Swiss prosecutors in 2012. In recent days those investigators have been increasingly willing to assert the agency’s ‘independent and proper’ role, though the federal police do report to the PMO.
Despite the Justice Ministry’s conclusion that SNC Lavalin did not qualify for a ‘Deferred Prosecution Agreement’ in early September, Wernick played a key role in coordinating ‘vigorous’ months-long lobbying of the Attorney General. His objective was clear and readily admitted in his testimony: he wanted Wilson-Raybould to ignore the requirements of that law, and to direct career prosecutors to halt the criminal trial of a firm with a long history of public corruption and bribery.
Wernick also admitted that his motives, and the motives of his co-conspirators, were motivated by economic and political considerations. The deferred prosecution law specifically rejects economic and political reasoning from being considered in determining eligibility.
Wernick reports directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and conspired to exert pressure on Wilson-Raybould with Trudeau’s top political operatives — including former Principle Secretary Gerald Butts, Chief of Staff Katie Telford, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
But repeated meetings and phone calls were only part of the pressure campaign.
Last December Wernick is said to have ‘threatened’ Wilson-Raybould’s senior staffer, Jessica Prince, with ominous warnings regarding the Cabinet’s displeasure with the Attorney General’s decision, less than a month before she was removed as Justice Minister.
The position of Clerk of the Privy Council is a historic one in the evolution of the British constitutional process, its origins dating back to the Magna Carta. The position requires a non-partisan occupant who is expected to avoid politics and the appearance of bias in political matters.
Wernick’s emotive and, at times, accusatorial testimony seemed to violate every norm and sensibility surrounding his position and its place in the Parliamentary system. Trudeau’s public references to the testimony only compounded concerns of partisanship.
In recent days, Wernick has been described as deeply regretful for the testimony, looking ‘visibly defeated’ and worried. Wernick holds a bachelors degree in economics from the University of Toronto.
Correction: An earlier version of this article states that Michael Wernick “refused to offer his testimony to the Justice Committee under oath”. He did not refuse. Instead, the Liberal majority on the committee voted against him taking an oath before the testimony. Lying to the committee would constitute Contempt of Parliament whether or not an oath was taken.