Trudeau sought to influence Wilson-Raybould, violated ethics rules: ethics commissioner
OTTAWA—Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke the federal Conflict of Interest Act in relation to the SNC-Lavalin scandal, by seeking to influence Jody Wilson-Raybould in "many ways."
Dion found that after taking months to review "troubling" evidence and relevant legal and constitutional principles, Trudeau contravened section nine of the Act, 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.
His findings, released in a scathing report less than 70 days before the federal election, have renewed discussions about the scandal that dogged the Liberals for months earlier this years and led to a decline in the polls.
The commissioner has found that Trudeau acted improperly when using his position of authority over Wilson-Raybould, the then-justice minister and attorney general, in an effort to have her overrule the director of public prosecution’s decision not to negotiate a deal with Quebec construction giant SNC-Lavalin that would see the company avoid a criminal prosecution over charges of corruption and fraud stemming from an RCMP investigation.
He said the evidence showed that 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.
Over the two months that it dominated headlines, the SNC-Lavalin scandal and the allegations of political interference at the centre of it led to blockbuster testimony, political bombshells, high-profile resignations, and new developments almost daily.
The affair centred on allegations from Wilson-Raybould that she faced months of “consistent and sustained,” high-level "veiled threats" to interfere in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. Wilson-Raybould said that she was pressured to have federal prosecutors pursue a remediation agreement, otherwise known as a deferred prosecution agreement, rather than criminal prosecution in the case, but she was unwilling.
"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.
'I can't apologize': PM
Speaking with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Trudeau said he accepts the report’s findings, and fully takes responsibility for “everything that happened,” saying that it shouldn’t have.
He stopped short of apologizing, saying he disagrees with some of Dion’s conclusions, including that any contact with the then-attorney general on this issue was improper.
“We need to be able to talk about the impacts on Canadians right across the country of decisions being made. But, I accept the report that the commissioner put forward,” Trudeau said.
“Taking responsibility means recognizing that what we did over the past year wasn’t good enough, but at the same time I can’t apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs, because that’s what Canadians expect me to do,” Trudeau said. “They expect me also to stand up for our institutions and as the ethics commissioner pointed out, those two elements came into conflict in an unfortunate way for which I take full responsibility.”
As the scandal unfolded, Trudeau continued to assert he nor his staff did anything wrong, amid calls from the opposition for his resignation and a public inquiry.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that as the first prime minister in Canadian history to be found to have broken federal ethics laws, he will have to face the Canadian public on the campaign trail and at the ballot box in a little over two months.
Instead of restating his call for Trudeau to resign, which came following Wilson-Raybould’s lengthy initial testimony, Scheer said Trudeau’s actions are "unforgiveable," and that now he "needs to be defeated."
"He clearly put his own partisan interests ahead of the democratic institutions… He made the decision to stay in office, now the decision is in the hands of Canadians," Scheer said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the report makes it clear that "Mr. Trudeau cannot be the prime minister of Canada."
"Mr. Trudeau, the prime minister, is working to benefit the interest of a multi-millionaire corporation and was working to benefit his own self-interest to get re-elected. This is just unacceptable. It is outrageous," Singh told reporters.
Wilson-Raybould issued a statement late Wednesday afternoon saying that Dion’s findings represent “a vindication of the independent role of the Attorney General and of the Director of Public Prosecutions in criminal prosecutions,” and that it “affirms the position I have taken from the outset."
His report largely sided with her version of events, which she brought forward over the course of hours of committee testimony, media interviews, and the release of documents, correspondence, and one secret audio recording.
Wilson-Raybould ultimately quit cabinet as a result of the issue, with then-Treasury Board President Jane Philpott following suit shortly afterwards. Trudeau then booted the two women from the Liberal caucus, citing a lack of trust.
On Wednesday, current Justice Minister David Lametti said he would not speak on whether or not a deferred prosecution agreement is still on the table for SNC-Lavalin, saying he would not comment on an ongoing criminal matter.
“The ethics commissioner has given his report, he has made his findings. The prime minster, as you heard earlier today, has accepted responsibility. I think there is no question there are many things we can do better… I think we can move forward positively,” Lametti said.
Philpott and Wilson-Raybould are now running for re-election as Independents.
“I remain committed to doing politics differently… there remains more work to be done,” Wilson-Raybould said.
Considered SNC-Lavalin's interests, series of meetings
In the 58-page report, Dion weighs in on several aspects of the multi-layered affair, what he considered the "troubling tactics" deployed, and offers new details about a series of key meetings and interactions central to the scandal.
Beginning with a 2016 meeting between Trudeau, a senior advisor, and the company’s then-CEO Neil Bruce, Dion offers a comprehensive timeline of the various threads of the scandal, from the back and forth between senior PMO staff and the then-justice minister’s aides, to the involvement of then-top bureaucrat Michael Wernick.
One aspect he said he did not consider was Wilson-Raybould’s relationship with her colleagues, or her shuffle into the veterans affairs portfolio that occurred just prior to the scandal breaking, saying those aspects were “immaterial.”
Dion found that senior officials within the Prime Minister's Office "were directed, by the Prime Minister, to find a solution in a desire to use the newly adopted remediation agreement tool,” that was tucked into a Liberal budget bill.
Dion said he was of the view that partisan considerations were indeed put to the attorney general at the time, contravening the long-held principle of prosecutorial independence. The commissioner concluded that Trudeau and his staff "viewed the matter chiefly through a political lens to manage a legal issue."
In his report Dion noted Trudeau's position that he was concerned about potential job losses should SNC-Lavalin be found guilty and therefore potentially not eligible for Canadian government contracts for a decade. Though, the commissioner found that the construction firm would "undoubtedly have been furthered” had Wilson-Raybould been successfully influenced to interfere.
He also stated that “the final and most flagrant attempt to influence” Wilson-Raybould came from Wernick, who was clerk of the privy council at the time. He has since retired, citing no path for mutual trust and respect between him and the opposition after his role in the affair saw him deliver dramatic and tense testimony. In March, Wilson-Raybould released secretly recorded audio of this conversation, in which he cautioned about a potential “collision” with the prime minister over the file, but backed up Wernick’s assertion that he did not make any direct partisan considerations, like Quebec votes, which Wilson-Raybould has alleged she was consistently reminded of while the file was on her desk.
“It is evident from the audio recording that Mr. Wernick was making an appeal, on behalf of Mr. Trudeau, to have the Attorney General reconsider her decision to not intervene in the criminal prosecution. Although the messenger had changed, the message remained the same,” Dion wrote in the report. ‘It is difficult for me to imagine that Mr. Wernick would have acted without a full and clear appreciation of Mr. Trudeau's position on the matter.”
"There is no requirement that the alleged influence must lead to the desired result for a breach of section 9 to occur," the report states, appearing to reference the fact that SNC-Lavalin has not been given the deferred prosecution agreement it was seeking.
As well, the report reveals that SNC-Lavalin had already sought legal opinions from two former Supreme Court justices on whether a remediation agreement would be appropriate in this case and that they were reviewed by the PMO and other ministerial offices, prior to PMO officials suggesting to Wilson-Raybould that she consider getting similar outside guidance before ruling out her interference in favour of a deferred prosecution agreement. She refused, saying that her mind had been made up on the matter.
Witnesses ‘constrained’: Dion
The investigation was launched in February and Dion continued to receive new information up until mid-July. Days later, Trudeau was given the ability to comment on a draft of the factual portions of the report.
According to Dion, despite having received evidence from 14 witnesses and conducting interviews with Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould and others, nine witnesses said they had information they felt was relevant but could not be disclosed because they felt it would breach cabinet confidence and fell outside of the scope of the Order in Council Trudeau granted.
That waiver was issued in order to allow Wilson-Raybould and "any person who directly participated in discussions with her," to speak about the case to the ethics czar, but put limits on the time frame in which these people were able to discuss.
Dion said that while he pushed to gain access, the Privy Council Office denied it. As a result, these witnesses were "constrained" in providing their full evidence, and Dion said he wasn’t able to get a full investigative picture of the matter, though he states he still feels he had enough information to come to his conclusions.
Dion also received a written submission from Trudeau’s legal team, which argued that his central concern in the SNC-Lavalin case was about public interest and not the political or corporate consequences. Trudeau’s reference to being an MP from a Montreal riding in one conversation was about emphasizing to Wilson-Raybould the real communities impacted by her decision not to intervene, his lawyers offered. The prime minister’s legal counsel also said that Trudeau cannot be “vicariously liable” for the actions of his staff.
Secondary PM-commissioned report released
The findings of a separate examination into whether the roles of justice minister and attorney general should be divided was released by the PMO in the hours after the ethics report was released.
Commissioned by Trudeau, former Liberal minister Anne McLellan examined some of the machinery of government issues that were brought into the spotlight during the scandal and she 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.
This is the second time the ethics commissioner’s office has found the prime minister has broken federal ethics laws.
Trudeau was also found to have broken the federal ethics act when he vacationed at the Aga Khan's private island. In 2017 Dion’s predecessor Mary Dawson found that when Trudeau took a Christmas 2016 trip with family and friends to the island in the Bahamas, he contravened the act in four ways related to accepting accommodations from someone registered to lobby his office.
In a statement to CTV News, Dawson said that she agrees with her successor’s decision. “Which I think is an easy one to come to in the circumstances,” she said.
In both cases there were no penalties for the infractions of federal law found, as the law as it is currently written doesn’t allow for them.
With files from CTV News' Rachel Gilmore.