OTTAWA — After insisting for six months that his government had done nothing wrong in the SNC-Lavalin affair, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was forced to accept a verdict Wednesday that backed his former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s version of events rather than his own.
In a scathing report, House of Commons’ Conflict of Interest and Ethics commissioner, Mario Dion found Trudeau used his position of authority over Wilson-Raybould to try to influence her decision-making and, in so doing, tried to further the Quebec engineering giant’s private interests.
“The authority of the Prime Minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson-Raybould as the Crown’s chief law office,” Dion wrote.
The federal watchdog ruled Trudeau breached section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act, marking the second time in two years this prime minister has been found to have broken ethics rules.
Watch: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to ethics commissioner’s report
Dion outlined what he called “troubling” tactics undertaken by the prime minister, the former clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, and staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, to get the then-attorney general to change her mind and involve herself in the prosecution of the engineering firm.
“The evidence abundantly shows that Mr. Trudeau knowingly sought to influence Ms. Wilson-Raybould both directly and through the actions of his agents,” Dion stated.
Trudeau has insisted he and his advisors sought only to safeguard thousands of Canadian jobs they believed to be on the line were SNC-Lavalin found guilty of fraud and corruption charges and banned from taking part in federal contracts for 10 years.
“I and my staff have always acted appropriately and professionally,” Trudeau told the public back in February. “...My job as prime minister has always been to stand up for Canadians and Canadian workers.”
SNC-Lavalin faces a criminal trial stemming from its business dealings in Libya during the previous decade. It stands accused of paying $48 million in bribes to one or more officials and defrauding Libyan organizations of nearly $130 million.
The firm is heavily involved in numerous infrastructure projects across the Canada, such as the Samuel de Champlain bridge and the light rail project in Montreal. Its main shareholder is Quebec’s Caisse de dépot et placement, the investment firm of many public and private pension plans in the province.
In his 58-page report, Dion cast doubt on the government’s narrative that SNC-Lavalin’s headquarters would likely be moved to the United Kingdom if it was not offered a deferred prosecution agreement as an offramp from its impending trial.
He also suggested that the government’s stated concerns for the company’s 9,000 Canadian employees and its pensioners should not have factored into the prime minister’s decision to try to influence his attorney general. Dion is also not convinced that is something Wilson-Raybould or the prosecutor were allowed to consider under a new legal mechanism introduced by the Liberals last year.
Under the law, the attorney general is allowed to take over the conduct of a public prosecution and issue directives for general cases or specific cases, though such decisions must be done in writing and publicly announced.
‘I take responsibility’: Trudeau
At a press conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Wednesday, Trudeau said he accepts the ethics commissioner’s report but disagrees with Dion’s conclusion that any contact with his former attorney general on this issue was improper.
“What happened over the past year shouldn’t have happened. I take responsibility for it,” he said. “We need to make sure that my government or any government going forward isn’t in that position again.”
Trudeau said he will implement recommendations contained in a report from former Liberal minister Anne McLellan, released by his office Wednesday, calling for a detailed protocol to govern how ministers and staffers consult with an attorney general about prosecutions.
Trudeau said that while there are “lessons to be learned” from the controversy, Canadians expect him to defend their interests in a way that doesn’t interfere in prosecutorial independence.
“Taking responsibility means recognizing that what we did over the last year wasn’t good enough, but I can’t apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs because that’s part of what Canadians expect me to do,” he said.
In her testimony at the Commons’ justice committee in late February, Wilson-Raybould described a “consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.”
She testified that she had told the prime minister on September 17, 2018, that her mind was made up and that she would not be directing the prosecution service to offer a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin. No other attorney general had ever issued such as directive and she did not want to become the first. As she told Wernick in a surreptitiously recorded call, “I’d be a mockery.”
“There is no way that anyone would interpret this other than interference,” she had warned during her call with the clerk.
Deferred prosecution agreements — a type of plea bargain for corporations — were inserted in the Liberals’ 2018 budget with an eye towards helping SNC, according to Wilson-Raybould, though her testimony to Dion suggests she was uncomfortable with the tool and the process used to achieve it.
PM’s relationship with Wilson-Raybould ‘challenging and tense’
Through his lawyer, Trudeau told Dion that he did not understand Wilson-Raybould’s perspective on the issue. He was concerned with explaining and justifying any decisions the attorney general made to Canadians and his overall aim was to ensure a remediation agreement for SNC had been properly considered.
The prime minister was concerned Wilson-Raybould had failed in her duty to acquaint herself with all the relevant facts, his counsel said. He felt her decision-making process was “inadequate and infected by legal misunderstandings and political motivation.”
Trudeau’s relationship with Wilson-Raybould had become “challenging and tense,” Dion wrote, summarizing a detailed brief offered by the prime minister’s lawyer.
“Mr. Trudeau was concerned with the significant friction between Ms. Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister’s Office, and the friction between her and her Cabinet colleagues.” The lawyer pointed to an instance where Wilson-Raybould had refused to share information with cabinet as part of a recommendation to her ministerial colleagues; this was offered as evidence that she was uncooperative and that she believed collaborating with Trudeau’s office and cabinet was “not something that she was required to do or even should do.”
His lawyer suggested that Wilson-Raybould’s “anger at being moved from the office of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General coloured her perception of prior events.”
In January, the former attorney general and justice minister was shuffled to the veterans affairs portfolio, a move widely seen as a demotion. Wilson-Raybould had been offered the Indigenous Services portfolio but declined, after its minister, Jane Philpott, was appointed to fill the void at the Treasury Board Secretariat following the departure of Scott Brison.
In an unusual 2,000-word public statement released at the time, Wilson-Raybould wrote that “it is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference...As such, it has always been my view that the Attorney General of Canada must be non-partisan, more transparent in the principles that are the basis of decisions, and, in this respect, always willing to speak truth to power. This is how I served throughout my tenure in that role…”
Trudeau’s lawyer said Wilson-Raybould had never expressed her view that contact with Trudeau or his staff was improper, and if she had (she stated this explicitly to Wernick), those objections were not reported back to the prime minister.
Trudeau, his lawyer said, was unaware of Wilson-Raybould’s views until the Globe and Mail’s front-page story on February 7, 2019, alleging she had been pressured by the PMO to involve herself in the SNC-Lavalin prosecution.
Dion took the position that it wasn’t his job or Trudeau’s to judge whether or not the attorney general had properly or sufficiently considered the public interest in her decision-making. He said he also did not consider the quality of Wilson-Raybould’s relationship with her cabinet colleagues, her alleged political motivations, her temperament, or the reasons for her appointment as minister of veterans affairs. “These arguments are immaterial to the matter under examination,” he wrote.
Dion said Trudeau misunderstood the important distinction between the dual roles of the minister of justice and the attorney general. The prime minister agreed it would be clearly improper to intervene directly with the director of public prosecutions, Dion wrote, yet Trudeau saw no harm engaging with the attorney general or her officials on a matter currently before the courts.
Dion found Trudeau not only sought to influence the attorney general but that his actions were “tantamount to political direction.” He outlined at least four separate occasions where political interests were raised with Wilson-Raybould or her staff, including the prime minister’s own reference to being the member of Parliament for Papineau during the sole interaction on the matter. That comment, Dion said, was made to stress the fact that the prime minister’s riding was near SNC-Lavalin’s headquarters and that Wilson-Raybould’s decision not to intervene could have larger political repercussions in Quebec and in Ottawa.
Using political interests to attempt to influence an attorney general in the context of an ongoing criminal prosecution is improper, Dion wrote, since it runs counter to the principle of prosecutorial independence and the rule of law.
In a two-page statement released Wednesday afternoon, Wilson-Raybould said she was grateful for the commissioner’s report, which she described as “a vindication of the independent role of the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions in criminal prosecutions.”
She said the report also “confirms critical facts” she shared with Canadians, and she lauded Dion for not being “distracted by inaccurate information” about the events in question or about her.
Wilson-Raybould highlighted several of Dion’s findings, noting how PMO staff were pressing her on the idea of seeking external advice all the while knowing what that advice would be and selectively withholding other material information from her. Dion reveals in his report that former chief justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin had been approached first by SNC’s legal counsel and later by the PMO, without the attorney general’s knowledge, to potentially participate as a third-party source of advice should Wilson-Raybould agree to hear from an outside expert.
Wilson-Raybould says she has ‘feelings of sadness’
Wilson-Raybould also notes that “the most flagrant attempt to influence” her decision, according to Dion, occured during her phone call with Wernick. Dion wrote that he did not believe the clerk would have made “such stark statements,” mentioning Trudeau’s mood and saying that the prime minister was “going to find a way to get it done, one way or another,” without a clear appreciation of Trudeau’s position.
Wilson-Raybould also said in her release that she has “feelings of sadness.”
“In a country as great as Canada, essential values and principles that are the foundation for our freedoms and system of government should be actively upheld by all, especially those in positions of public trust. We should not struggle to do this; and we should not struggle to acknowledge when we have acted in ways that do not meet these standards.”
Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, her colleague and friend who quit cabinet in solidarity, were thrown out of the Liberal caucus in April after months of negotiations between friendly MPs and the PMO. Sources said the women were looking for an apology from Trudeau.
Wednesday, Trudeau had none to give.
The SNC-Lavalin affair, which consumed political Ottawa for months, led to two high profile cabinet resignation, Wilson-Raybould’s and Philpott’s, and the resignation of Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts. Both women are running as Independents in this fall’s upcoming election. Butts is back working for the Liberal Party’s re-election campaign.
The scandal also marked the moment when the Conservatives, under leader Andrew Scheer, first began leading in public opinion polls in a sustained fashion. Now, two months from the next federal election, the Liberals and the Conservatives are neck and neck in national polls.
‘Justin Trudeau is guilty again’: Scheer
Speaking to reporters in Regina, Scheer said the “verdict” on the controversy is in.
“Justin Trudeau is guilty again.”
The Tory leader reiterated his call for the RCMP to investigate the matter but said Canadians would soon have their chance to pass judgment in the upcoming election.
Watch: Scheer calls on RCMP to investigate after ethics watchdog’s ruling on SNC-Lavalin affair
“Trudeau may never face a court of law over his role in this scandal but he will have to face the Canadian people over the next few weeks,” he said.
The report provides a clear picture of who Trudeau is and how he has failed to live up to promises to be honest and ethical, Scheer said. The Tory leader noted how the prime minister had long denied he pressured Wilson-Raybould inappropriately.
“We just can’t believe anything this guy says anymore.”
Speaking to reporters in a Victoria coffee shop, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the report a “bombshell” and reiterated his call for a full public inquiry into the matter..
“Mr. Trudeau, the prime minister, was working to benefit the interests of a multi-billionaire corporation and was working to benefit his own self interest to get re-elected,” he said. “This is just unacceptable. It is outrageous that… the prime minister of Canada would be doing such a thing.”
Dion’s reports describes how PMO and SNC-Lavalin officials worked hand in glove to get a deferred prosecution agreement on the books and later to think of alternative ways to get Wilson-Raybould to reconsider her position.
““We know right now, we’ve got proof… we’ve got evidence… that (Trudeau) caved to the demands of SNC-Lavalin.”
Singh said Trudeau cannot continue on as prime minister, suggesting Canadians shouldn’t believe any promises he makes on the campaign trail.
“We know right now, we’ve got proof… we’ve got evidence… that he caved to the demands of SNC-Lavalin, to a powerful corporation, to change the laws, effectively get them off the hook,” Singh said. “And how do we know he’s not going to do that again? We don’t.”
When asked if a DPA was still on the table for SNC-Lavalin Wednesday, Trudeau said that decision wasn’t his to make.
“That is a decision to be made by the attorney general and minister of justice and not a decision for the prime minister to make.”
In his report, Dion noted he was unable to assess the full picture of what happened because the Privy Council Office refused his office’s request to access to all cabinet confidences as part of his office’s examination.
Watchdog couldn’t get full picture
Nine witnesses said they had information they believed to be relevant to the investigation but that they felt it could not be disclosed because it fell outside the scope of what they were legally free to say.
This is the fifth report from the ethics commissioner involving Trudeau and his cabinet ministers.
In 2017, the previous commissioner, Mary Dawson, found Trudeau broke the ethics act when he vacationed on the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas with his family. That marked the first time a sitting prime minister was found to have broken the law.
With files from Ryan Maloney