Jody Wilson-Raybould alleges 'consistent and sustained' pressure on SNC-Lavalin case
OTTAWA -- Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould says she faced high-level “veiled threats” and political interference in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, outlining her allegations in a stunning testimony that left Prime Minister Justin Trudeau facing calls for his resignation.
Wilson-Raybould said she was subjected to a months-long "sustained effort" from nearly a dozen senior government officials to pressure her into doing what she could as then-attorney general to instruct federal prosecutors to drop the criminal prosecution of the Quebec construction and engineering giant and pursue a remediation agreement instead.
“For a period of approximately four months, between September and December of 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role of Attorney General of Canada, in an inappropriate effort to secure a prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin,” she said Wednesday.
Trudeau, reacting to Wilson-Raybould’s allegations, maintained that he and his staff did not act inappropriately.
“I strongly maintain, as I have from the beginning, that I and my staff always acted appropriately and professionally. I therefore completely disagree with the former attorney general’s characterization of events,” Trudeau told reporters in Montreal on Wednesday evening, after Wilson-Raybould spent hours testifying in Ottawa.
The Prime Minister’s Office also told CTV News that no one from Trudeau’s office will be resigning as the result of Wilson-Raybould’s testimony.
In her opening remarks, Wilson-Raybould said that the alleged pressure included "veiled threats" if she did not change her mind. This was the first time she had spoken publicly since the controversy began unfolding 20 days ago.
Wilson-Raybould said she was consistently reminded of the potential political implications in Quebec, should SNC-Lavalin be found guilty in this case and therefore no longer be able to apply for federal contracts, possibly leading to the company moving out of Canada.
Trudeau stated that while it has been a “difficult few weeks” as the result of “internal disagreements,” he said his party will always be concerned about and stand up for jobs. He once again emphasized that in the end, the decision whether or not to instruct federal prosecutors -- a step never before taken -- was hers to make alone.
Throughout her testimony, she cautioned there were limitations in her ability to speak broadly about the case because of the specifics of the waiver of solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidence that Trudeau had issued.
Despite this, Wilson-Raybould has offered an in-depth account of approximately 20 exchanges --10 phone calls and 10 meetings -- specifically on the SNC-Lavalin case while she was still attorney general and justice minister. She was not able to speak about any relevant matters that occurred after she was shuffled into veterans affairs. An NDP motion to call on Trudeau to expand the conditions of the waiver was defeated when the meeting concluded.
Trudeau is not scheduled to be in question period on Thursday, and it’s rare for party leaders to attend question period on a Friday. That means the next time Trudeau could face a question directly on this scandal in the House of Commons may not be until March 18, as MPs leave town at the end of this week for a two-week break in their constituencies.
Opposition calls for PM to resign
After Wilson-Raybould’s testimony wrapped up, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer immediately called for Trudeau’s resignation.
“Justin Trudeau simply cannot continue to govern this country now that Canadians know what he has done. That is why I am calling on Mr. Trudeau to do the right thing and to resign. Further, the RCMP must immediately open an investigation if it has not already done so into the numerous examples of obstruction of justice,” Scheer said
“The testimony Canadians have just heard from the former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, tells the story of a prime minister who has the lost the moral authority to govern. A prime minister who allows his partisan, political motivations to overrule his duty to uphold the rule of law,” Scheer said.
He said the Liberal government is now in its “final stages,” and that the cabinet should find a way to go on without Trudeau to address the many other pressing matters that the public is concerned about.
“They have a duty to govern this nation, not help a disgraced prime minister hang onto power… It shouldn’t be this way in Canada,” Scheer said.
Asked about this call for him to step down, Trudeau said that “Canadians will have a very clear choice in a few months’ time about who they want to be prime minister in this country and what party they want to form government in the general election.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who watched Wilson-Raybould speak from inside the Committee room, called her a “credible” witness and described her testimony as “explosive.” He restated his call for a public inquiry, a proposal which Liberal MPs, including the prime minister, have already stood in the House and voted to defeat.
He wasn’t as absolute as Scheer about whether Trudeau should resign, or whether a criminal investigation needs to be immediately launched.
“Everything should be on the table, absolutely a criminal investigation is on the table… This is so serious that it requires every tool in our tool box to get to the truth because Canadians are left really, really in shock,” Singh said.
Accounting of meetings, texts
Wilson-Raybould’s more-than-30-minute opening statement detailed chronologically a series of communications with her office, ranging from in-person meetings and phone calls, to text messages and emails, from 11 senior staffers from the Prime Minister's Office, Privy Council Office and the finance minister's office.
Wilson-Raybould said that this pressure occurred before and after the director of public prosecutions had decided that federal lawyers would be carrying on with the criminal case and would not be seeking a deferred prosecution agreement.
Speaking about a a text conversation she had with her then-chief of staff Jessica Prince about a meeting her staffer had with then-principal secretary Gerald Butts, and Trudeau’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford, Wilson-Raybould quoted her staffer as telling her that Butts had allegedly said: “Jess, there is no solution here that doesn’t involve some interference.”
Butts resigned on Feb. 18 amid this scandal. He has denied any wrongdoing and said he was leaving because he had become a distraction.
During one conversation she said she had with the prime minister, Wilson-Raybould said she looked him “in the eye” and directly asked if he was politically interfering in her role, after he allegedly referenced being the MP for Papineau, Que.
“The prime minister said, ‘No, no, no, we just need to find a solution,’” Wilson-Raybould said.
In another exchange, Wilson-Raybould named Ben Chin, who is Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s chief of staff. She said that he spoke with Prince to say that extending a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin needed to happen out of fear the company would relocate.
"In my view, these events constituted pressure," she told the committee.
Wilson-Raybould said discussions about potential job losses at SNC-Lavalin were appropriate in the “initial phases” of the debate.
“But after I had made my decision as the attorney general not to enter into, or issue a directive, the successive and sustained comments around jobs became inappropriate. Because I had made my decision and everyone was fully aware that I had made my decision,” she said.
Wilson-Raybould referred to more “veiled threats” that came around December 18 and 19, when she had a phone call with Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick in which he sought to know whether her thinking had changed about pursuing a deferred prosecution agreement.
She alleges that Wernick told her: “I think he is gonna find a way to get it done one way or another. So, he is in that kinda mood and I wanted you to be aware of that.”
Wilson-Raybould said that while policy-oriented discussion early on in this case may have been appropriate, the “enduring efforts, even in the face of judicial proceedings on the same matter,” crossed the line.
“In my view, the communications and efforts to change my mind on this matter should have stopped. Various officials also urged me to take partisan, political considerations into account, which it was clearly improper for me to do so,” she said.
Defending Wernick’s involvement as Wilson-Raybould portrayed it, Trudeau said that “the civil service in this country, which functions on a non-partisan basis, is always focused on the best interests of Canadians, which also includes making sure we are standing up for jobs, protecting economic growth.”
Scheer also called for Wernick to resign.
On her leaving cabinet
Wilson-Raybould told the committee that she believes that she was shuffled out of her role as justice minister and attorney general because of her refusal to change her mind about the case, something she says Trudeau denied when she floated that view.
She also alleged that the days before the January cabinet shuffle her former deputy minister was called by Wernick, who told her that one of the first conversations that her replacement, later named as Quebec MP David Lametti, would be having in his new role was on the SNC-Lavalin file. Wilson-Raybould said that if he had gone through with a remediation agreement early in his mandate, she would have resigned from cabinet at that point.
She also faced questions about why she agreed to take on the veterans affairs portfolio despite already having what she described as “anxiety” about her interactions in regards to her time on the previous file. She said she stayed because she trusted and had confidence in the prime minister.
Asked if she still has confidence in the prime minister today, she responded: “I resigned from cabinet because I did not have confidence to sit around the table, the cabinet table. That is why I resigned.”
“We either have a system that is based on the rule of law, the independence of prosecutorial functions, and respect for those charged to use their discretion and powers in a particular way, or we do not,” Wilson-Raybould told the committee.
On her way out of the committee, Wilson-Raybould was asked if she will remain in the Liberal caucus. She said she will continue to serve as the MP for Vancouver-Granville, and that she doesn’t “anticipate being kicked out of caucus.”
Though, when Trudeau was asked if she still had a place in the Liberal caucus, and whether he would sign her nomination papers should she run again in the fall, Trudeau said he couldn’t say for sure right now.
“As you might imagine, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to review her entire testimony. I will do that before making any further decisions,” he said.
'Shaken by what I've heard'
During Wilson-Raybould’s opening remarks, some opposition members appeared taken aback by what they heard. There were several more opposition members in attendance for the meeting than usual and the viewing gallery inside the room was full.
The committee agreed to extend its hearings past the scheduled two hours as Wilson-Raybould continued to take questions from MPs. In their opening comments to her, both Conservative MP Lisa Raitt and NDP MP Murray Rankin told Wilson-Raybould that they believed everything she said, and applauded her courage for speaking out.
“Mr. Chair, I have to say that I am very shaken by what I’ve heard here today. I’ve been a lawyer for over 40 years, I’ve taught a generation of law students about the rule of law, and what I’ve heard today should make all Canadians extremely upset,” said Rankin.
“Now, Ms. Wilson-Raybould, we’re both from British Columbia. We’ve known each other for many years and I need you to know that I believe you, entirely.”
Raitt, sitting next to Rankin on the committee, nodded her head in agreement.
“I need you to know that,” Murray continued, “and I want you to know as well that I very much admire your courage in being here and telling Canadians what you have experienced, because I believe -- believe you, which I do -- that there is no other conclusion that one can reasonably draw that there was a sustained, consistent effort to interfere politically with the critical role that an attorney general must play in our legal system.”
Later on in the questioning, Raitt asked Wilson-Raybould if SNC-Lavalin lobbyists had ever requested a meeting with her, as they had with numerous others on Parliament Hill, including opposition members. Wilson-Raybould said no. That was also her response when Raitt asked if she was aware that a government relations official at SNC-Lavalin allegedly had professional, and personal relationships with Butts and Chin, dating back to a time when they all worked at Queen’s Park in Ontario.
During the questioning, Wilson-Raybould was asked what recommendations she might have for the committee as it continues its study of the matter. She suggested that one area of change could be recommending that the positions of justice minister and attorney general be separated, so that the AG would not attend cabinet meetings and would remain isolated from the political machinations that the justice minister is privy to.
She also sought to assure Canadians that “I do not want members of this committee or Canadians to think that the integrity of our institutions has somehow evaporated. The integrity of our justice system, the integrity of the director of public prosecutions and prosecutors is intact. So I don’t want to create fear that that’s not the case. It is incumbent upon all of us to uphold our institutions and to uphold the rule of law and that’s why I’m here.”
Wilson-Raybould also suggested that future testimony from the senior officials she had named in her opening statement would be important to the committee’s work. Previous attempts from the opposition to call many of those she has named were voted down by the Liberal members on the justice committee.
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