OTTAWA – Former star candidate and now outgoing Liberal MP Andrew Leslie is on the witness list to testify, if called, against the government on behalf of suspended Vice-Admiral Mark Norman in the high-profile case about the alleged leak of cabinet documents, CTV News has learned.
Leslie, who represents the Ottawa riding of Orleans and was previously a lieutenant-general in Canadian military, would not comment. But sources tell CTV News that he informed the Prime Minister's Office more than a year ago that he would testify on behalf of Norman. Sources confirm that he is listed on the defence witness list.
Two high level sources tell CTV News that after Leslie informed the Liberal whip that he would testify on behalf of Norman, he was not pressured to change his testimony, nor was he asked not to run again.
But as late as two weeks ago, sources say that the most senior members of the PMO were inexplicably still unaware of Leslie’s decision.
CTV News has also learned that Leslie asked that his legal costs be covered by the government, and that request has been signed off on, sources said.
In contrast, CTV News has learned that Norman’s legal fees, which are not being covered by the government, have grown to more than $500,000 and that this has presented him with a serious financial burden that sources tell CTV News is very difficult for him to deal with at the moment.
Sitting MPs can approach the Board of Internal Economy -- the multi-party governing body of the House that oversees MPs’ spending, manages employment and other House administration matters -- to request that their legal fees for external matters be covered. It is unclear if this is the route Leslie has taken, as the decisions related to legal matters that the Board makes are done behind closed doors.
It is not known in what context Leslie could be preparing to present if the case goes to trial, whether it's as a character witness, or in a more substantive way. There is no trial date set yet in the high-profile case, which is why there is no confirmation as to when Leslie might testify, though it is expected to begin in August, months before the Oct. 21 federal election.
When asked for comment, Cameron Ahmad, communications director in the Prime Minister's Office said: "We do not comment on matters before the courts, and we respect the independence of the court process."
The Norman trial has the potential to expose damaging revelations about how big military contracts are awarded, and the opposition is seizing on Leslie’s decision to testify for Norman, describing it as dealing another blow to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s credibility on the issue.
“What it tells me is that this is the third individual who is very sought after by the Liberals in the last election to run for them that has found that he couldn’t stomach what is happening with the Liberal government,” said Conservative MP Lisa Raitt. She was referring to former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board President Jane Philpott, who were booted from the Liberal caucus after saying they did not have confidence in how the prime minister handled the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
Norman is a constituent in the riding Leslie represents, and Leslie has known Norman for more than 15 years as colleagues and acquaintances. Leslie had Norman work on his team when he led the controversial 2010 transformation report on the Canadian military.
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 has denied any wrongdoing and his legal team have argued that the charges he is facing are politically motivated, The Canadian Press has reported.
The case is still in the pre-trial stage and there have been a host of various procedural fights already brewing between Norman's legal team, which is headed by defence lawyer Marie Henein, and the federal government. The SNC-Lavalin case, which centred on accusations of attempted political interference in the Quebec construction giant's criminal trial for fraud and corruption, appeared to give Norman's legal team new avenues for examination as they continue to fight for access to secret government documents. At the time of publication, CTV News has not received comment from Norman's legal team.
Leslie’s decision to openly support Norman has earned the public praise of other high-profile military veterans.
“I think this sends a reassuring message, a) to Mark that he’s not alone, and b) to chain of command to all the men and women in (the Canadian Armed Forces) that this is who we are,” said retired Major-General David Fraser.
Leslie announced earlier this week that he would not be running again in 2019, after four years in the House of Commons. He was seen early on as a likely contender for cabinet but throughout his tenure served as both the whip, and then a parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs with a special focus on Canada-U.S. relations. Sources inside PMO say that Leslie’s decision to testify on behalf on Mark Norman did not factor into this decision not to run again.
"I think it's time for a different path for myself... And there’s other things I want to do as a private citizen which I'm not going to go into any detail about right now," Leslie told reporters on Parliament Hill on Wednesday after the weekly Liberal caucus meeting, where he said he had a "great conversation" with Trudeau and the rest of the Liberal team.
Prior to being recruited by the Liberals, Leslie spent 35 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, including as the head of the Army during the war in Afghanistan.
In a letter on his MP website announcing his upcoming departure from federal politics, Leslie thanked Trudeau for the responsibilities he gave him over his time on the Hill, and thanked his constituents for the “opportunity to serve.” In the letter, Leslie did not mention the Norman trial.
Former Liberal minister and longtime MP Scott Brison departed federal politics earlier this year after announcing he too would not be running again. Brison, who has served as Treasury Board President, had faced questions over his ties to Nova Scotia-based Irving Shipbuilding, in relation to Norman's ongoing trial for allegedly leaking cabinet secrets related to Quebec-based Davie Shipbuilding.
Norman's lawyers have accused Brison in court filings of acting inappropriately by leading an effort to end a multi-million dollar contract with Davie for an interim naval support ship, and as The Canadian Press has reported, are planning to make him a key witness in the coming summer trial. Brison has denied any wrongdoing and has said that this case had "absolutely no bearing" on his decision to leave federal politics.