The SNC-Lavalin affair, key players and core questions: an explainer
Published Friday, February 15, 2019 1:29PM EST
Last Updated Friday, August 16, 2019 11:37AM EDT
OTTAWA – Over the two months that it dominated headlines, the SNC-Lavalin scandal offered blockbuster testimony, political bombshells, twists, turns, and new developments almost daily.
With the opposition parties vowing to continue pushing the issue into the coming fall federal election, here’s CTVNews.ca’s comprehensive explainer about every aspect of this story, from what transpired, to who the key players are, and what’s been said.
What is alleged to have happened?
The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that the Prime Minister's Office pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould -- who was the attorney general at the time -- to ask federal prosecutors to make a deal in the corruption and fraud case against SNC-Lavalin. The newspaper reported—citing sources speaking on condition of anonymity— that Wilson-Raybould was leaned on to have federal prosecutors pursue a remediation agreement rather than criminal prosecution, but she was unwilling.
Remediation agreements can include having the company accept responsibility, denounce the wrongdoing, vow to implement corrective measures, and pay financial penalties.
In contrast, if the company was criminally convicted they could be banned from securing Canadian government contracts for a decade, potentially putting jobs on the line.
CTV News has not independently verified the Globe’s story, but Wilson-Raybould has since testified appearing to confirm and expand on these allegations during her appearance before the House Justice Committee that has taken on a study of the SNC-Lavalin affair. More on all of that below.
What is SNC-Lavalin?
A Quebec-based publicly traded company that provides engineering, design, procurement, construction, and operations and maintenance services across a number of industry sectors. It has offices in 50 countries and employs about 50,000 people worldwide, nearly 8,000 of whom are in Canada. It is involved in several key infrastructure projects in Canada. It has been in legal hot water over the last several years related to allegations of corruption and illegal political donations. SNC-Lavalin has since sought to make changes to its internal culture in an effort to improve its reputation.
Who is Jody Wilson-Raybould?
Jody Wilson-Raybould is a member of Parliament who represents the riding of Vancouver-Granville, B.C. She was first elected in 2015, but prior to that was a crown prosecutor and regional chief. When Trudeau named his first cabinet she became justice minister and attorney general, making history as the first Indigenous person to hold that position. She remained in that portfolio until January, when she was shuffled into veterans affairs. She announced on Feb. 12 amid this affair, that she’d be resigning from that portfolio.
On Feb. 27 she appeared before the House Justice Committee and offered her version of events. Prior to testifying, and after, Wilson-Raybould has cited solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidence as limiting her ability to fully "speak my truth," as she put it on Feb. 20 in the House of Commons. She has retained former Supreme Court judge Thomas Cromwell as her legal counsel.
During her testimony Wilson-Raybould said she’s always spoken truth to power.
"I come from a long line of matriarchs, and I'm a truth-teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House. This is who I am, and this is who I always will be," she said.
What exactly did she say in her testimony?
Wilson-Raybould testified that, as the former attorney general, she faced a "consistent and sustained effort" for months by nearly a dozen government officials pressuring her to intervene in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, out of concern for jobs and Quebec political prospects.
In her hours-long testimony, Wilson-Raybould described what she called "veiled threats" from top officials within the Trudeau government if she did not direct federal prosecutors to drop the criminal case against the Quebec construction and engineering giant. She directly implicated the prime minister as she chronologically detailed a series of communications she and her staff had with officials 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.
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.
How was Gerald Butts involved?
On Feb. 18 Butts resigned as Trudeau’s principal secretary. He is a longtime friend of Trudeau and his departure surprised many.
In his statement of resignation he denied any wrongdoing and said he was leaving because he had become a distraction.
"At all times, I and those around me acted with integrity and a singular focus on the best interests of all Canadians," Butts said in his statement. "Any accusation that I or the staff put pressure on the Attorney General is simply not true," he said.
Then, during his March 6 committee testimony, Butts said he is confident that “nothing happened” outside the normal scope of government business in regards to the SNC-Lavalin case, and that he can’t see how his or others’ interactions with Wilson-Raybould on the file could constitute pressure.
Butts posed, that if this entire affair was criminally wrong, as the opposition has alleged, then why did it not become an issue in the months that discussions were ongoing.
“If anyone crossed a line, it is the responsibility of the minister to inform somebody about that. I’m presenting myself as the most likely person that would have been informed, and I was not.”
Butts was directly implicated in Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, though he was not the only one.
Speaking about 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 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."
His appearance came after various opposition requests to have him appear, and happened after he personally wrote to the committee asking to appear.
What about this additional evidence and audio?
On March 29, 43 pages and a 17-minute audio recording turned over by Wilson-Raybould were released publicly, breathing new life into her side of the story.
The additional submission included texts, emails, and a new statement. It was framed by Wilson-Raybould as further proof meant to shore up her claims while also responding to contradicting testimony that came after her.
The audio had the most impact. It was a secretly recorded conversation about the SNC-Lavalin issue a month before she was shuffled, in which Wernick cautioned about a potential “collision” with the prime minister over the file, while Wilson-Raybould who knew she was recording, issued repeated and stern warnings that senior officials pressuring her over the SNC-Lavalin case would “look like nothing but political interference.”
After she got off the call, the new evidence shows that she texted her then-chief of staff Jessica Prince that “the s**** is going to hit the fan.”
Wernick’s lawyer decried the tape and questioned her motivations in holding on to it for the better part of two months before releasing it.
In the days following Wilson-Raybould making all this public, Butts said he too had more to say and release. This additional offering was made public on April 2 and included submitted text conversations he had with Wilson-Raybould that show the tensions between the PMO and the former justice minister as she was being shuffled into a different portfolio.
Why did Jane Philpott resign?
On March 4, Jane Philpott resigned as Treasury Board President in Trudeau’s cabinet, saying she had lost confidence in the way the government was handling the ongoing SNC-Lavalin scandal.
In a statement posted to her MP website, Philpott said that the recent events, including the SNC-Lavalin scandal, "have shaken the federal government in recent weeks and after serious reflection, I have concluded that I must resign as a member of cabinet."
Philpott said the evidence of alleged pressure on former attorney general Wilson-Raybould, who is her personal friend, has "raised serious concerns" for her.
In Philpott’s resignation letter, she cited the convention of cabinet solidarity -- where ministers must always be prepared to defend other ministers publicly -- in saying that it has become "untenable" to continue to serve in cabinet.
In a statement, Trudeau's office said he spoke with Philpott about her decision to resign, and that he "accepted" it and thanked her for her service.
Trudeau then conducted his third shuffle in as many months on March 18 to replace her at Treasury Board with B.C. Liberal MP Joyce Murray.
Philpott then rocked Parliament Hill when an interview she gave to Maclean’s magazine was published. In it, Philpott said there is “much more to the story that needs to be told.”
Why were Philpott and Wilson-Raybould removed from caucus?
Philpott and Wilson-Raybould were ejected from the federal Liberal caucus on April 2. Trudeau announced this at a nationally-televised meeting of his caucus. The move was made citing the “will of caucus,” because the trust that Liberal MPs had with the two women had been “broken” and could not be repaired. The decision came after a series of emergency caucus meetings were held in which MPs from various regions were canvassed on their views, and following a last-ditch letter from Wilson-Raybould to her then-colleagues imploring them to think of “what kind of party” they wanted to be a part of” and to let her stay.
For many Liberals it was too little too late, with a series of them speaking out about Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, questioning their motives, decrying the secret taping, and calling on them to put up or shut up.
"We've taken every effort to address their concerns but ultimately if they can’t honestly say that they have confidence in this team, despite weeks of testimony, face-to-face conversations and phone calls with myself and other members of caucus, then they cannot be part of this team," Trudeau said, to a standing ovation from Liberal MPs.
In the days following their ouster, both gave lengthy media interviews that continued to fan the flames of their affair, and then Philpott launched political Ottawa into a procedural debate over the possibility that Trudeau contravened a law that governs Parliament and impeded on MPs' rights when he expelled her and Wilson-Raybould.
Liberals were quick to push back, saying that at the start of this Parliament the Liberal caucus -- including Philpott and Wilson-Raybould -- agreed not to require majority votes on caucus ejections, among other things. Days later House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan, whom Philpott asked to rule on the matter, instead shut it down, saying he could not conclude that her rights as a member were infringed on, and that he has no role in interpreting caucus votes.
And Michael Wernick has resigned?
On March 18, Canada's most senior bureaucrat, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, announced his "upcoming retirement" before the next federal election. This came prior to the aforementioned secret audio.
Wernick said that there "is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the Opposition parties," after both the Conservatives and New Democrats called for his resignation given his role in the still-unfolding SNC-Lavalin controversy.
Wilson-Raybould accused Wernick of issuing "veiled threats" if she did not change her mind about instructing federal prosecutors to pursue a remediation agreement rather than continuing with the criminal trial.
During his two appearances before the House Justice Committee on this matter, Wernick delivered direct and sometimes terse responses to MPs' questions about his alleged involvement. He denied ever making any threats in relation to Wilson-Raybould’s handling of the criminal case against the Quebec company, as she had alleged.
He also raised eyebrows during his first round of testimony when he offered off-topic opening remarks on the state of online discourse, partisanship and the prospect of political assassinations in the upcoming campaign.
His last day on the job was April 19. His successor, Ian Shugart, is a long-time public servant.
What happened at the House Justice Committee?
The House Justice Committee had been the epicenter for many of the key moments during the unfolding of this scandal, but on March 19 -- the day of the federal budget -- the Liberal MPs on the committee shut down the study saying Canadians had heard all they need to make their own conclusions about the controversy.
In initially agreeing to study the matter the Liberal members on the committee were successful in limiting the scope and witness list. The study was meant to broadly review the topics at the heart of the affair: remediation agreements, the Shawcross doctrine, and the discussions between the AG and government colleagues on SNC-Lavalin.
In addition to Wilson-Raybould, Butts, and Wernick, the committee heard from current Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti, deputy minister for justice Nathalie Drouin, and a panel of legal experts.
The opposition wanted to invite Wilson-Raybould back to add to her testimony, which she signalled openness to doing. These MPs also wanted others in the PMO or senior staffers in adjacent offices who were mentioned by Wilson-Raybould in her testimony to testify. This would include Trudeau Chief of Staff Katie Telford, Senior Advisers Elder Marques and Mathieu Bouchard, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s Chief of Staff Ben Chin.
Having those she named appear was something Wilson-Raybould suggested would be important to the committee's work.
Days after the committee was shut down, Wilson-Raybould sent a letter to committee chair Anthony Housefather saying that she will provide additional evidence such as texts and emails, in addition to offering up further a written statement on the affair, even though its probe has concluded.
Housefather has said that this doesn’t mean they’ll reopen their story, or even issue a report in the end.
On March 26, a proposal from opposition MPs to hold a second committee study on the scandal has been defeated.
The opposition wanted the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee to take on a probe of the matter, after the House Justice Committee ended theirs.
Specifically the opposition wanted to have former Liberal cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott appear, and to request that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waive any constraints of privilege or cabinet confidentiality to allow them to speak fully and freely.
This proposal was denied, with Liberal MPs saying it would be premature because evidence is still set to come in from Wilson-Raybould to the initial committee probe.
What has PM Trudeau said?
Throughout the scandal Trudeau asserted 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 after Wilson-Raybould’s testimony.
He’s since said that he remains focused "on the things that really matter to Canadians."
Prior to Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, Trudeau issued an Order in Council waiving solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidence during her time as AG, in relation to the SNC-Lavalin prosecution. This came after heavy calls to do so for weeks, from the opposition.
Initially, he denied the Globe report, and said that "the government of Canada did its job," in this case and followed the rules. That message has remained the same.
He's said that that if any member of the government felt differently they had an obligation to raise that with him, and no one did, Wilson-Raybould included. "She said nothing of that to me," and as the scandal evolved, offered that had Scott Brison not stepped down Wilson-Raybould wouldn’t have been shuffled.
Trudeau has also faced questions over how this entire affair impacts two of the key tenets of his government: reconciliation with Indigenous people and leading a feminist government. These questions came after various Indigenous groups criticized how Trudeau and his office have treated Wilson-Raybould, including how they responded to personal attacks on her. Trudeau has since apologized for this.
Then, during his most extensive comments to reports on this case to date, Trudeau stood in the National Press Theatre and said that an “erosion of trust” between himself and Wilson-Raybould led to the blow-up. While acknowledging that he could have acted differently as events around SNC-Lavalin unfolded, Trudeau stopped short of apologizing.
This decision to not apologize or recognize any direct wrongdoing remains a keep sticking point for Wilson-Raybould, Philpott and others who believe their side of events.
What have the opposition parties said and done?
Generally, they have vowed to not let up on this issue until they get answers, using whichever tools or legal avenues at their disposal. They also want Trudeau to testify. Though, weeks out from the eye of the storm, the focus on the affair began to wane.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has called for Trudeau’s resignation and for the RCMP to "immediately" investigate what he called "numerous examples of obstruction of justice." He's since sent a letter to the RCMP to this effect and the RCMP is reviewing it.
Scheer also wanted on Trudeau to preserve all documents related to the case, and has alleged the Liberals have tried to "cover up" the scandal by using their majority to defeat several opposition motions that have called for a public inquiry, for full solicitor-client privilege to be waived, and for several senior PMO staff to testify.
During an opposition-prompted emergency debate, the opposition parties on Feb. 28, hailed Wilson-Raybould as a credible and courageous witness.
Then, the Conservatives launched into a record-setting House of Commons marathon voting session in protest over what they feel has been a PMO “coverup” of the scandal. Each of the votes were considered confidence votes and so it prompted the Liberals to have to stack their benches through the entire 30-hour procedural standoff.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who watched Wilson-Raybould speak from inside the Committee room, continued to restate his call for a public inquiry.
The New Democrats were highly critical of the government for working in the interest of the wealthy over the interest of law-abiding Canadians in general, and they have said that this case is just another example of that. It was the NDP that sought the ethics investigation now underway.
What did the ethics commissioner find?
Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s office announced on Feb. 11 that he has launched an investigation in the case because he has "reason to believe that a possible contravention" of the Conflict of Interest Act has occurred, specifically regarding a public office holder seeking to improperly influence a decision of another person.
In a letter confirming the probe, Dion said that he thought it was a possible contravention of Section 9 may have taken place, which states that public office holders are prohibited from using their position to seek to influence a decision that furthers the interest of a private third party.
On August 14 he issued his report, finding that yes, Trudeau did in fact breach section 9 of the federal Conflict of Interest Act, by seeking to use his position of authority to influence Wilson-Raybould in "many ways."
Dion found that after taking months to review "troubling" evidence, interviewing witnesses, and consulting relevant legal and constitutional principles, Trudeau both directly and indirectly, through his staff, sought to exert influence over Wilson-Raybould’s decision on the matter, after months of government officials and the prime minister denying that was the case.
"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 officer," said Dion.
His findings, released in a scathing report less than 70 days before the federal election, renewed opposition outrage and calls for accountability.
The prime minister has not apologized, as he did the first time he was found in contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act. While accepting responsibility, Trudeau has maintained that the actions of he and his staff were solely about protecting jobs.
The nearly 60-page report contained a host of new information and details, despite Dion noting that the Privy Council Office restricted access to some evidence. You can read more on all that, here.
What is improper about an AG being pressured?
The attorney general of Canada has the ability to become involved in such cases by instructing federal prosecutors to pursue a remediation agreement.
There is a principle in Canada, however, that states the attorney general must maintain a level of independence above political considerations to maintain the integrity of the judicial system. This "Shawcross doctrine" asserts that an AG is able to consult cabinet colleagues but cannot be directed or considerably pushed towards making a decision related to a prosecution, as that decision is theirs alone.
If she had instructed the Public Prosecution Service -- an independent federal prosecuting body created in 2006 -- on this case, it would have had to be made public and posted on the Canada Gazette, which the government considers its "official newspaper." In reality it is where new statutes and proposed regulations and decisions are published.
Since the story broke there has been questions circulating over whether it would be appropriate to split up the justice minister and attorney general roles.
In an interview with Evan Solomon on CTV's Question Period, Scheer said he would be "open to looking at" appointing two separate people to hold those roles, so that the attorney general would be insulated and not sit at the cabinet table. This is an approach used in the British parliamentary system.
What are the details of case at the centre of this?
The SNC-Lavalin case that Wilson-Raybould was allegedly pushed towards resolving without a criminal prosecution, stems from an RCMP investigation that resulted in charges of fraud and corruption in 2015. SNC-Lavalin and two subsidiaries are alleged to have paid nearly $48 million in bribes to public officials to influence government decisions between 2001 and 2011.
In relation to these fraud and corruption charges, SNC-Lavalin has lobbied the government and parliamentarians on all sides, in favour of a DPA as their desired way to settle the case. The option to pursue a DPA was a newly-passed mechanism tucked into a budget bill, more on that below.
Despite SNC-Lavalin's lobbying efforts, the federal director of public prosecutions is still pursuing the case and this month asked the court to throw out a plea from SNC-Lavalin to spare the criminal proceedings.
The case is currently before a Montreal court, and as it is ongoing the government has cited concerns about this controversy having the potential to interfere with the proceedings.
What steps has Trudeau’s office taken in light of the affair?
In his March 7 national news conference, Trudeau announced he would be taking steps in the weeks ahead to respond to some of the issues raised during the controversy.
Trudeau added an additional liaison between the PMO and the Liberal caucus, and he appointed former Liberal minister Anne McLellan to examine some of the machinery of government quirks that have been brought into the spotlight, such as the potential of splitting up the justice minister and attorney general roles.
She was asked to also look at “the operating policies and practices across the Cabinet, and the role of public servants and political staff in their interactions with the minister of justice and attorney general,” and to report back with her findings no later than June 30.
That happened, and in her report released by the PMO hours after, McLellan concluded that splitting the roles or other structural change is not required.
"It is clear to me that there is no system for managing prosecutorial decisions that absolutely protects against the possibility of partisan interference, while providing for public accountability,” she wrote, alongside several recommendations.
Trudeau said these findings and recommendations will help inform the government going forward to make sure something like this never happens again.
Now, who is threatening to sue whom?
Just as the furor over the SNC-Lavalin affair began to turn into a dull roar, Scheer unveiled that Trudeau’s lawyer had sent him a letter threatening a libel lawsuit over comments Scheer made on the day that Wilson-Raybould’s supplementary statement and audio evidence related to the SNC-Lavalin scandal was released.
In that statement Scheer called Wilson-Raybould’s submission “concrete evidence that proves Justin Trudeau led a campaign to politically interfere in SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution,” and the entire affair “corruption on top of corruption on top of corruption.”
Scheer has since doubled down, repeating his statement, while Trudeau has defended his decision to put Scheer on notice that the matter may make it to a courtroom, saying "there are consequences" when politicians choose to "twist the truth and distort reality."
Without any action on the legal front as of late April, the exchange of words has amounted in little more than considerable back and forth during question period, and generating content for Conservative Party fundraising emails, billed as contributions to Scheer’s “legal defence fund.”
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