Trudeau 'welcomes' ethics commissioner probe of alleged PMO interference in SNC-Lavalin case
OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he "welcomes" the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner's newly-announced investigation into whether he or anyone in his office tried to have former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould abandon the prosecution of a case against SNC-Lavalin.
"This is an issue that has been much talked about over the past few days and I think that it's extremely important that Canadians can continue to have confidence in our system," Trudeau told reporters in Vancouver on Monday.
This comment came shortly after commissioner Mario Dion's office confirmed that an "examination" had been launched under the Conflict of Interest Act because he believes the law may have been contravened in this case.
In the letter to the two NDP MPs who requested the probe, Nathan Cullen and Charlie Angus, Dion said that he has "reason to believe that a possible contravention of Section 9 may have occurred. Section 9 prohibits a public office holder from seeking to influence a decision of another person so as to improperly further another person’s private interest. As a result, I have initiated an examination … and have so informed Mr. Trudeau."
This investigation comes after reporting from The Globe and Mail that Prime Minister's Office tried to influence Wilson-Raybould -- who was also the federal attorney general at the time -- to ask prosecutors to make a deal to pursue a remediation agreement rather than a criminal prosecution in the corruption and fraud case against the Quebec-based engineering and construction company. CTV News has not independently verified the story.
According to the Globe, Wilson-Raybould was unwilling to play along and did not follow through despite the high-level pressure. She was then later shuffled out of the justice file and into veterans’ affairs, a move some have seen as a demotion and one now that the opposition parties are framing as being the result of allegedly not following the PMO’s orders in the SNC-Lavalin case.
Remediation agreements, otherwise known as a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, can include having the company accept responsibility, denounce the wrongdoing, vow to implement corrective measures, and pay financial penalties. Jurisdictions like the U.S. and the U.K have had similar regimes in place for some time, but the mechanism was a Liberal government addition, tucked into an omnibus budget bill last year.
If the company was convicted they'd be banned from securing Canadian government contracts for a decade. The Toronto Star has reported that the company was lobbying a number of parliamentarians over the criminal case, including Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
On Monday Trudeau said that he has heard from MPs, premiers, and Canadians who are aware of the thousands of jobs at SNC-Lavalin in Canada, saying it is an issue that the federal government takes seriously, but "we ensure that we are upholding the rigour and the independence of our justice system."
Speaking with reporters in Burnaby, B.C., NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that the ethics probe is further evidence that Trudeau's government is working in the interest of the wealthy over the interest of law-abiding Canadians.
"We want the government to waive solicitor-client privilege. We want the government and Mr. Trudeau to allow the justice committee to ask questions about what’s going on because at the end of the day, we’ve got a multi-national corporation that’s pressured the government to change the laws… they've changed the law and they’re pressured an attorney general," Singh said.
PM 'opens up' question of privilege
Trudeau said that he has met with Wilson-Raybould "a couple of times" since arriving in B.C. over the weekend. Wilson-Raybould represents a Vancouver riding. Trudeau said that he and Wilson-Raybould discussed their "shared goals" for the government during these meetings.
He also said that she "confirmed for me a conversation we had this fall, where I told her directly that any decisions on matters involving the director of public prosecutions were hers alone."
On CTV's Power Play, former Conservative justice minister Peter MacKay said that Trudeau speaking for Wilson-Raybould about this conversation he said they had “opens up” the issue of privilege.
"When you open up these discussions, you can’t open them partially... Once you open up privilege discussions you have to reveal all, so the prime minister may have made another misstep today by saying only part of what those discussions were," MacKay said.
Trudeau said he still has "full confidence" in Wilson-Raybould and that he respects her citing solicitor-client privilege as the reason why she has not yet publically commented on the reported allegations that have rocked Parliament Hill.
Asked if he would consider waiving solicitor-client privilege in this matter, which would allow Wilson-Raybould to speak, Trudeau said he has asked current Justice Minister and current lawyer for the government, David Lametti to advise him on this and get back to him with recommendations.
Speaking about the latest developments from Fredericton, N.B., Scheer called on Trudeau to waive solicitor-client privilege because "Canadians are no closer to knowing the truth" then when the news broke last week.
"If he has nothing to hide, he should waive this immediately," Scheer said.
Lametti should recuse: MacKay
Facing questions about the Dion investigation after speaking to the Canadian Bar Association in Ottawa on Monday, Lametti citied the commissioner's independence and said he had no comment.
MacKay took it a step further and suggested that it’s time Lametti recuse himself from the matter altogether, citing the example of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the investigations into Russian collusion.
"Similarly here, Mr. Lametti should probably step back and not say anything more about this," MacKay said.
According to information about ethics investigations on the commissioner's website, when a request is received that "was not found to be frivolous, vexatious or made in bad faith, he must immediately proceed with an examination."
This will include allowing the public office holder in question—in this case Trudeau, and possibly Wilson-Raybould as well— to present the details of the situation from their side, and, if needed, summoning witnesses and compelling them to provide evidence.
In a statement announcing the ethics commissioner let them know that there are sufficient grounds to begin an investigation, Cullen called on Trudeau and his team to “commit to fully cooperate with the Ethic Commissioner's investigation.”
Renewed calls for committee probe
Despite Lametti saying in an interview on CTV's Question Period that he has yet to see any evidence to merit a House of Commons Justice Committee study into the matter, there were renewed calls Monday for the Liberal members to support one.
The Justice Committee will be meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday afternoon to consider a motion from the opposition members of the committee that would call on Wilson-Raybould, Lametti, and several other high-profile government officials to testify on the SNC-Lavalin case.
The Conservatives have reached out directly to the five Liberal MPs who hold the majority on the House Justice Committee, saying they "must" support the motion for the study.
Scheer said the government needs to allow the committee to conduct its work "in full view of the public."
"If Justin Trudeau decides to stonewall us or shutdown the committee on Wednesday we will use every legal, and law enforcement tool at our disposal."
This comes as another Liberal MP who is not on the committee, Wayne Long, has called for the committee to pursue the matter.
He issued a statement saying "complete openness and transparency is the only way forward in situations like this."