OTTAWA—Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould says she cannot discuss allegations that she was pressured by the Prime Minister’s Office to help SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal prosecution.
In a statement Friday morning, Wilson-Raybould says she is bound by solicitor-client privilege and cannot publicly talk about aspects of the case.
The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that Wilson-Raybould was demoted in a cabinet shuffle early last month because she wouldn’t intervene in the case of SNC-Lavalin.
The Quebec engineering and construction giant has been charged with bribery and corruption in a bid to secure government business in Libya and wanted a deal, allowed under the law, to pay reparations rather than be prosecuted.
Toronto MP Arif Virani, the parliamentary secretary to the current justice minister David Lametti, answered a question in the House of Commons with the most sweeping denial of the story the government has issued so far.
“Mr. Speaker, at no point has the current minister of justice or the former minister of justice been directed or pressured by the prime minister or the Prime Minister’s Office to make any decision on this or any other matter,” Virani said. “The attorney general of Canada is the chief law officer of the crown and provides legal advice to the government with the responsibility to act in the public interest. He takes those responsibilities very seriously.”
Asked whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would waive the rule that prevents Wilson-Raybould, as the government’s former top legal adviser, from saying what she did in the job, Virani repeated that the allegations of improper influence are false.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are calling for an ethics probe into the allegations.
Scheer says Conservatives on the House of Commons justice committee, along with the New Democrats, will also force an emergency meeting to consider a motion calling on nine high-ranking government officials to testify, including Wilson-Raybould herself.
The list includes Lametti, the prime minister’s chief of staff Katie Telford and the prime minister’s principal secretary Gerald Butts.
“If the prime minister has nothing to hide as he has suggested then he should have no reason to fear these individuals appearing before the justice committee,” Scheer said on Parliament Hill. “MPs have a duty to determine what exactly happened here and Justin Trudeau and his office must be forthcoming.”
The prime minister should have nothing to fear from an independent investigation by the federal ethics commissioner, Singh said separately.
“All this cries out for some serious investigation,” he said in a telephone interview from Burnaby, B.C., where he’s campaigning for a seat in the House of Commons in a Feb. 25 byelection.
“If he truly wants to clear this up and believes there’s been no wrongdoing, he should welcome an investigation from the ethics commissioner. … Tell us what happened, be transparent, invite the ethics commissioner to investigate and tell us that this is not the case or, if it is the case, then there’s a serious reckoning that needs to happen.”
The Globe reported that PMO aides leaned heavily on Wilson-Raybould to persuade the federal director of public prosecutions to negotiate a “remediation agreement” with SNC-Lavalin as a way of holding it to account for wrongdoing by some of its executives, rather than pursuing a criminal prosecution that could financially hobble the company.
SNC-Lavalin was charged in 2015 by the RCMP and openly called for a remediation agreement to avoid damaging the company, a major employer in Quebec. After lobbying by the company of government officials, including those in the PMO, the government included in its 2018 budget a Criminal Code amendment to allow such agreements to be negotiated in cases of corporate crime, as is done in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Last October, Kathleen Roussel, the director of public prosecutions, informed SNC-Lavalin that negotiating a remediation agreement would be inappropriate in this particular case. Three months later, Wilson-Raybould was moved to the veterans affairs post, a move widely seen as a demotion.
Both Scheer and Singh argue the issue cuts to the heart of our democracy and independent system of justice.
“The allegations that we are hearing in the last 24 hours are unprecedented,” Scheer said.
It appears a corporation that has in the past made illegal donations to the Liberal party, among others, was able to influence the government to the point of changing the law and pressuring the attorney general to interfere with a decision of the public prosecutor, Singh said.
“At the end of the day, Canadians deserve to have a government on their side, on the side of justice, not on the side of a multinational corporation.”
Singh said the allegations suggest there may have been possible violations of three sections of the federal Conflict of Interest Act: the prohibitions against public office holders giving preferential treatment to any individual or organization, using insider information to improperly further a person’s private interests or seeking to influence a decision to further another person’s private interests.
On the day Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her twin role as justice minister and attorney general, she penned an unprecedented, lengthy missive defending her performance in the job. Among other things, she wrote that “it is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference” and that, as attorney general, she believed she must be “always willing to speak truth to power.”
She has refused to comment on the alleged pressure from PMO to help SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal trial, telling the Globe and Mail that the matter is “between me and the government as the government’s previous lawyer.”
That left her successor at Justice, Lametti, to fend off opposition charges Thursday of political interference in the justice system. Lametti said neither he nor Wilson-Raybould were ever directed or pressured to intervene with the director of public prosecutions to drop the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
Wilson-Raybould’s father, Bill Wilson, said in a Facebook post Thursday that his daughter’s cabinet demotion “makes sense now—ugly political sense.” He predicted “history will prove that she did the right thing.”
The attorney general is legally allowed to give directives to the public prosecutor on general issues and on individual cases, provided the directives are in writing and published in the Canada Gazette, the federal register.
The fact that such directives must be done publicly is intended to constrain a justice minister from doing anything overtly political.News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2019