OTTAWA – Former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says 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.
And she says she believes she was shuffled out of the prestigious justice portfolio to veterans affairs in January because she refused to give in to it.
Wilson-Raybould made the stunning and detailed accusations in testimony Wednesday before the House of Commons justice committee, 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 finished, said Trudeau had lost the moral authority to govern the country and should resign. He also called for a police investigation of Wilson-Raybould’s claims.
The former minister told the committee she was “hounded” to end the prosecution for months after the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, had rejected the idea of negotiating a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin and long after she had unequivocally declared that 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.
Nevertheless, 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.
She 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 the move 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’d been improperly pressured first surfaced in the Globe and Mail.
“At the time, I did not see it as my responsibility to resign. I saw myself as the attorney general of the country who was doing her job to ensure and uphold the independence of the prosecutor and uphold the integrity of the justice system and the rule of law.”
After she was moved out of that role, Wilson-Raybould said she would have resigned immediately had her successor in the justice portfolio, David Lametti, issued a directive to Roussel to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin – which the attorney general is lawfully entitled to do, as long as that the directive is published in the official record of government decisions, the Canada Gazette.
Trudeau has said there were vigorous discussions within government about the SNC-Lavalin case but that he repeatedly assured Wilson-Raybould that a decision on intervening to halt the prosecution was hers alone.
She disputed that version of events, saying Trudeau only offered some 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 is himself a Quebec MP.
“I was quite taken aback,” she said, adding that 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.
Her 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” that she could lose her job from the clerk of the Privy Council, Wernick. The country’s top civil servant last week told the 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, a kind of plea bargain that would allow the company to avoid the potentially crippling impact of a criminal conviction. 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. They repeatedly raised concerns about the risks to SNC-Lavalin’s viability if it were convicted of corruption and fraud in relation to work it sought in Libya.
Moreover, she said they were worried that 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 coming federal election this fall.
She said she was told repeatedly the decision was up to her, but attempts to talk her into a remediation agreement were relentless.News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2019