OTTAWA – Federal prosecutors have stayed the charge of breach of trust against suspended Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, citing no “reasonable prospect of conviction,” meaning he is a free man and there will be no pre-election trial.
Norman says he is now looking forward to returning to work, and has vowed to tell his story in the coming days.
Inside the Ottawa courthouse on Wednesday, prosecutors outlined their reasoning behind the dropped charge in the high-profile case, prompted by an allegation that he leaked cabinet documents. The Crown says the decision was made solely by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and denied that there was any interference in that decision.
Federal prosecutor Barbara Mercier said in court that it had a duty to end the prosecution if there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction,” and that while some of Norman’s actions were, in the mind of the Crown, secretive and inappropriate, they were not criminal.
Norman served as the second-in-command of the military until he was charged in March 2018 with breach of trust for allegedly leaking cabinet secrets in favour of Quebec-based Davie Shipbuilding in relation to a $700-million shipbuilding contract. Norman, who was suspended from the military as a result of the charge, had denied any wrongdoing.
The entire court appearance lasted just minutes, with Judge Heather Perkins-McVey ending proceedings by saying that Norman was free to go, years after the entire affair began. Not long after the charge was stayed, the federal government announced that it will be paying Norman’s substantial legal fees.
Norman’s legal team, which is headed by defence lawyer Marie Henein, had argued that the charge was politically motivated and had been engaged in various procedural fights with the federal government over accessing secret documents to bolster their argument for having the case tossed out before heading to trial.
The trial, if it went ahead, had the potential to expose damaging revelations about how big military contracts are awarded.
Given that the charge has been stayed, and not withdrawn, the Crown could resume the case should new information arise that improves the likelihood of conviction, though it appears all sides aren’t anticipating that. Now, Norman’s team says the time has come for the government to apologize to him.
'I have an important story to tell': Norman
Norman, who was present during Wednesday’s proceedings, held a press conference at a nearby Navy mess hall, where he said that while he is obviously pleased and relieved he has been exonerated, he is disappointed it took this long.
“The alarming and protracted bias of perceived guilt across the senior levels of government has been quite damaging and the emotional and financial impacts of this entire ordeal have taken a toll,” Norman said.
He told reporters that he has an “important story to tell” and he intends to tell that story in the coming days because he thinks it is a story that Canadians want to and need to hear.
Norman, who appeared emotional at certain points, thanked his legal team, and those who took risks to step forward and support him. He has not ruled out pursuing a civil suit against the government over his treatment in this case, with Henein saying that’s a conversation for another day.
Though, she does think Prime Minister Justin Trudeau owes Norman an apology.
“Vice-Admiral Norman has been through a great deal, his family has been through a great deal. There is a supply ship that is operational, on time, and under budget thanks in part to Vice-Admiral Norman. I think it’s time to say sorry to him,” she said.
He said that he now looks forward to a “seamless” and immediate reinstatement. He was moved into a temporary post in Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance’s office and it remains unclear what position he will be returning to, as Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd is currently serving as the commander of the Navy, and Lt.-Gen. Paul Wynnyk is the current vice chief of defence staff.
Sajjan said that Wynnyk will stay in place, but Vance will meet with Norman to discuss next steps.
In a statement Wednesday evening, Vance said that the stay eliminates the conditions that caused Norman to be relieved of his duties, and he’ll be talking to the newly-vindicated senior military member about his return to work very soon.
“This decision ends court proceedings that have been a long and difficult process for Vice-Admiral Norman, his family and for the Canadian Armed Forces. We have missed Vice-Admiral Norman a great deal and I look forward to welcoming him back to work as soon as possible,” Vance said.
CTV News previously reported that Norman’s legal fees, which had not been covered by the government, have grown to more than $500,000 and presented him with a serious financial burden.
On Wednesday, however, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that he has authorized Norman’s request to have his legal fees covered by the federal government. Sajjan said that the specific amount is still being determined.
“I have authorized to pay for the fees because the decision that has been made today. They’ll have those discussions and the amount will be figured out,” Sajjan said.
“Oh… Wow, OK,” Norman remarked when he learned this.
Result 'despite, not because of' feds: Henein
Speaking in court Wednesday morning, Henein provided a statement about prosecutorial discretion and independence that appeared to be a pivot on her prior messaging about political motivations. She said that Crown lawyers acted in "highest tradition of the bar," and that she is grateful that the public prosecution service acted independently.
The SNC-Lavalin case, which centred on accusations of attempted political interference in the federal prosecutors’ work regarding the Quebec construction giant's criminal trial on allegations of fraud and corruption, appeared to give Norman's legal team new avenues for examination as they continued to fight for access to secret government documents.
Speaking about the prospect of political interference in the day’s proceedings, Henein said that the outcome was “despite, not because of” the government. Though, she did speak at length about what she called “concerning” involvement of the government.
She said that the federal Liberals were “at the table” throughout the process, being represented by Department of Justice lawyers in the fight she said was led by the Privy Council Office and PMO to withhold records from both the defence and prosecution.
Henein said that Canadians should be concerned when there are efforts to bring politics into courtrooms, but people should be relieved to know that the justice system was “truly unassailable” in Norman’s case because the Director of Public Prosecutions acted independently.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors made every effort to emphasize the absence of any political interference in the case, or the decision to stay the charge against Norman.
“No other factors were considered in this decision” said Director of Public Prosecutions Kathleen Roussel in a statement. “Nor was there any contact or influence from outside the PPSC, including political influence in either the initial decision to prosecute Mr. Norman or in the decision to stay the charge today.”
On Parliament Hill Wednesday afternoon, Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti stated that there was no political interference in the matter.
“There was no political interference from government, no political interference from the Department of Justice, no political interference from the Attorney General’s Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions has stated that,” Lametti said.
The prime minister also said that the process happened “entirely independent” of his office. “It’s an independent process and we have confidence in the work done by the Director of Public Prosecutions,” Trudeau told reporters.
New information behind Crown decision
The Crown said that Norman’s defence team presented information in March that provided new context for Norman’s conduct. “It did call into question whether or not we could prove” the case beyond a reasonable doubt, Mercier told reporters on her way out of the courtroom. She said that the Crown could not prove that Norman’s conduct amounted to a departure from the standards expected of a person in his position.
“This was a very complex case… I cannot get into the specifics of that information. The defence council gave it to us under certain conditions, for our purposes only, but I will say that absorbing it, comparing it to investigative materials, we came to that conclusion that there’s no reasonable prospect of conviction,” Mercier said.
Speaking about the nature of defence procurement, Norman said that “what goes on inside that process is difficult to explain at the best of times, and so I am confident that at all times I acted with integrity, I acted ethically, and I acted in the best interest of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Forces, and ultimately the people of Canada.”
Feds avoid high-profile pre-election trial
The case was still in the pre-trial stage, with the actual trial proceedings expected to begin in August, close to the start of the federal election campaign. It was set to be a heated and dramatic trial, and potentially damaging for the Liberals.
Last week, CTV News reported that outgoing Liberal MP Andrew Leslie, lieutenant-general in the military, was on the witness list to testify, if called, on behalf of the defence. Leslie was at the courthouse on Wednesday morning, greeting Norman with a hug when he arrived.
Asked about Leslie’s presence, Norman said that he has “benefited from the support of thousands, and I am very grateful for that support.”
In court filings, Norman's lawyers had accused former Liberal minister and longtime MP Scott Brison of acting inappropriately by leading an effort to end a multi-million dollar contract with Davie for an interim naval support ship. They were planning to make him a key witness in the trial, The Canadian Press has reported. Brison has denied any wrongdoing and has said that this case had "absolutely no bearing" on his decision to leave federal politics.
Despite the federal prosecutors and the prime minister insisting the decision to stay the charges was done independently, the opposition are poised to continue to push that line of questioning, after spending months accusing the government of improper meddling in the SNC-Lavalin controversy.
The issue dominated question period on Wednesday, which Trudeau was not in town for. The opposition called for the Liberals to apologize to Norman and sought to tie the government’s actions in this case to those in the SNC-Lavalin affair. Over the course of the day opposition MPs have vowed to get answers from the government, and questioned the timing of the stay just days after it was reported that Leslie was set to testify.
“What we’re seeing today is right out of the SNC-Lavalin playbook. Justin Trudeau has tried to destroy the reputation and career of someone who has stood up to him,” said Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. “We still have lots of questions about why the government was so afraid of the truth coming to light, why they withheld documents, why they refused to hand over information that Mark Norman and his lawyer were asking for, to help clear his name and shed light on this.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called for an independent investigation into the way the case was handled. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant, Canadians deserve the truth,” he said.
A second person has been charged with breach of trust in relation to accusations of leaking government documents. As The Canadian Press has reported, Matthew Matchett, a suspended official with Public Service and Procurement Canada, has also been charged. His lawyers have told the court that he intends to plead not guilty. According to The Canadian Press, his case is still pending.
With files from CTV News’ Glen McGregor