OTTAWA—Despite limits on what she can say about things that happened more recently, former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould will be able to speak freely about what pressure she felt not to pursue a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.
Wilson-Raybould is scheduled to speak to the House of Commons justice committee Wednesday afternoon, the first time her side of the SNC-Lavalin saga gets a public airing.
But she warned Tuesday that her hotly anticipated testimony won’t tell the whole the story because, she said, an unprecedented order-in-council waiving solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality doesn’t cover everything.
The waiver “is a step in the right direction,” she wrote the committee Tuesday, but it “falls short of what is required.”
On his way into the Liberals’ weekly caucus meeting Wednesday, Trudeau said he believes the waiver does what is needed.
“We took the unprecedented step as a government of waving cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege so that the former attorney general could share her perspective on the Lavalin matter in a free manner,” he said. “We know that people need to understand her perspective on this and we know the justice committee needs that to do its work.”
The waiver covers Wilson-Raybould’s time as justice minister and attorney general—the post she held when Trudeau’s office is alleged to have exerted improper pressure on her last fall to halt the criminal prosecution of Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin on charges of corruption and bribery related to government contracts in Libya.
But she now says she needs those restrictions waived not just for the time when she was attorney general, but also for anything that was said or done after she was shuffled on Jan. 14 to the veterans-affairs post—including her eventual resignation from cabinet a month later and her presentation to cabinet last week about her reasons for resigning.
“I mention this simply to alert the committee to the fact that the order-in-council leaves in place whatever restraints there are on my ability to speak freely about matters that occurred after I left the post of attorney general,” Wilson-Raybould wrote.
Trudeau wouldn’t directly answer a question about whether he thinks she can talk about why she resigned.
“The approach that we are taking in both the ethics committee and the justice committee is looking into the issue of whether or not the AG underwent pressure or inappropriate pressure and she will be able to speak fully,” he said.
Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt has speculated that it might have been only after Wilson-Raybould was demoted to be minister of veterans affairs that she realized she was being punished for refusing to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin, a kind of plea bargain that would require the company to pay restitution but avoid the potentially crippling impact of a criminal conviction.
Any questioning of Wilson-Raybould along those lines will presumably lead nowhere today. Nevertheless, Wilson-Raybould’s testimony—including a 30-minute opening statement she requested, but complained Tuesday won’t be sufficient time to provide a “full, complete version of events”—should finally provide some details about precisely what the former minister may have deemed improper pressure.
Last week, Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick told the committee that, in his view, everyone in the Prime Minister’s Office conducted themselves with “the highest standards of integrity,” that no inappropriate pressure was put on Wilson-Raybould and that Trudeau repeatedly assured her the decision on the SNC-Lavalin prosecution was hers alone.
He acknowledged, however, that the former minister might have a different interpretation of events and predicted she will zero in on three in particular:
- A Sept. 17 meeting with Trudeau and Wernick, which the clerk said was primarily focused on the stalled Indigenous-rights agenda, over which he said Wilson-Raybould had “a very serious policy difference” with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and other ministers. During that meeting, held two weeks after the director of public prosecutions had ruled out a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin, Wernick said Wilson-Raybould informed the prime minister that she had “no intention of intervening” in the matter, although as attorney general she was legally entitled to give direction to the public prosecutor.
- A Dec. 18 meeting of Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, and principal secretary, Gerald Butts, with Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff, Jessica Prince. Wernick was not present at that meeting and offered no details.
- A Dec. 19 conversation Wernick had with Wilson-Raybould in which he told her Trudeau and other ministers were “quite anxious” about the potential impact of a criminal conviction on the financial viability of SNC-Lavalin and on innocent employees, shareholders, pensioners and third-party suppliers who would suffer as a result. Wernick said he was informing the minister of “context” surrounding her decision on the company but insisted it was not inappropriate pressure.
Wilson-Raybould is also likely to provide her version of a Dec. 5 dinner with Butts, who resigned last week. Butts has confirmed Wilson-Raybould raised the SNC-Lavalin matter briefly and he advised her to speak to Wernick. Butts has insisted that at no time did he apply improper pressure on the former minister.
The waiver given to Wilson-Raybould to speak about her time as attorney general also applies to others in government with whom she spoke about the SNC-Lavalin prosecution. That would allow Butts and other Trudeau staffers to testify freely if called upon.
So far, the Liberal majority on the justice committee has balked at calling staffers as witnesses, but it could reconsider after hearing from Wilson-Raybould.News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2019