Wernick warns of a 'collision' between PM, Wilson-Raybould in new SNC-Lavalin audio
Published Friday, March 29, 2019 12:45PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, March 29, 2019 9:52PM EDT
OTTAWA – Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould was cautioned about a potential “collision” with the prime minister over the SNC-Lavalin file by outgoing Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, a newly-released audio recording reveals. This caution came a month before she was shuffled out of her role, and nearly two months before the scandal began unfolding publicly.
According to an audio recording of a conversation that the pair had, submitted to the House Justice Committee by Wilson-Raybould, Wernick said he was worried what might happen if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould remained at “loggerheads” about whether or not to offer a deferred prosecution agreement to the Quebec engineering firm.
In the audio, Wilson-Raybould can be heard issuing repeated and stern warnings that senior officials pressuring her over the SNC-Lavalin case would “look like nothing but political interference” if the Quebec construction and engineering company were granted deferred prosecution. By the time of her recorded conversation with Wernick, Wilson-Raybould says she had already endured months of intense lobbying from such officials.
She said in the audio that she was absolutely confident in her decision -- to back the Director of Public Prosecutions’ decision not to grant the agreement and to continue pursuing the criminal charges -- and in response, Wernick said he was “worried about a collision then because he is pretty firm about this. I just saw him a few hours ago and this is really important to him.”
In a statement late Friday, Trudeau’s office said that he was “not briefed by the Clerk on his conversation with Jody Wilson-Raybould,” and that the PMO was “unaware of the full contents of this recording before today.”
The PMO statement reiterates that Trudeau wishes she would have gone to him directly about the matter, reinforcing his message that there “was clearly an erosion of trust over the past few months” between all key actors in this affair.
“I don't get the covert ops program or holding on to the tape for a convenient moment,” Wernick’s lawyer Frank Addario said in a statement, according to The Canadian Press. According to his lawyer, Wernick was not aware the call had been recorded until it was released on Friday.
“She was the chief legal officer for the country. She didn't give her tape to the RCMP. She didn't give it to the PM or the Ethics Commissioner. She didn't even give it to the committee when she first testified. Most peculiar,” CP quotes him as saying.
The 17-minute audio file was provided to all members of the House Justice Committee on Friday, as part of the new and supplementary evidence related to the SNC-Lavalin scandal that she handed over days ago.
The 43-pages of additional material also includes a 21-page written statement, as well as screen shots of text messages and copies of emails that she referenced during her initial testimony, adding more fodder to the continuously developing controversy that’s dominated political headlines for the last two months.
The secret recording is of a Dec. 19 phone call with Wernick that both parties have previously testified to. In the recording Wilson-Raybould can be heard saying that she was trying to protect Trudeau by issuing these cautions about prosecutorial independence.
She said the way the case was being handled “screams of” political interference and that while she agrees jobs are important, the issue is how it would look if federal prosecutors dropped the criminal charges of fraud and corruption, in exchange for a remediation agreement.
Throughout the scandal -- which touched off on Feb. 7 when The Globe and Mail reported that Wilson-Raybould faced pressure to interfere in a criminal case against SNC-Lavalin -- the federal Liberals have cited the 9,000 jobs at stake as their main motivator for any actions in this case.
Should SNC-Lavalin be found guilty, they could face a 10-year ban on applying for federal contracts, leading to the company having to move out of Canada.
“I feel that I am giving him my best advice. And if he doesn’t accept that advice then it’s his prerogative to do what he wants. But I’m trying to protect the prime minister from political interference, perceived or otherwise,” she said.
Wernick -- who was not made aware during the recording that he was being taped -- can also be heard saying that he “respects” where Wilson-Raybould was coming from, but that Trudeau’s view was that “he’s not asking you to do anything inappropriate or to interfere. He’s asking you to use all the tools that you lawfully have at your disposal, Wernick said.
“You’re not just being attorney general, you’re the minister of justice and a cabinet [minister] – and, you have context within which you exercise your roles and your responsibilities. Like, I’m not seeing anything inappropriate here,” Wernick can be heard saying.
Chair of the committee, Anthony Housefather, has said that "no redactions have been made" to Wilson-Raybould’s submission by the committee, though there are portions of the submission that appear to have been redacted by Wilson-Raybould before it was submitted.
Wilson-Raybould, who is still a member of the Liberal caucus, provided this evidence to further bolster the testimony she gave to the committee on Feb. 27, and to respond to contradicting stories that others have offered since her appearance.
RECORDING OF CALL WITH WERNICK
During her initial testimony on this phone call, Wilson-Raybould said she was alone and took the call from home. She said that Wernick wanted to communicate where Trudeau was at regarding the file, and spoke about the company potentially moving its headquarters.
She quoted him saying “I think he is going to find a way to get it done, one way or another....So he is in that kind of mood, and I wanted you to be aware of it.”
When asked about this call during his follow up testimony, Wernick said that it was not his recollection of that call. “I did not wear a wire, record the conversation or take extemporaneous notes,” Wernick said.
“I never raised partisan considerations at any time. I reminded her repeatedly that she was the final decision-maker. I did not attempt to influence her decision. I was giving her relevant context about public interest considerations for a decision that was hers to take. I never suggested consequences for her,” Wernick testified.
The audio call largely confirmed Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, but also 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. Though he did cite a “rising anxiety” following job losses in Oshawa and tough times in Calgary.
In the recording you can hear her taking a deep breath before the conversation begins.
“I actually feel really uncomfortable having this conversation because it’s wrong,” Wilson-Raybould says on the tape.
“Does he understand the gravity of what this potentially could mean? This is not just about saving jobs. This is about interfering with one of our fundamental institutions. This is like, breaching a constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence,” Wilson-Raybould asks Wernick about Trudeau.
“Well I don’t think he sees it as that,” Wernick said, offering that it was a case of people talking past eachother.
“Well then nobody’s explaining that to him, Michael,” she replied.
The conversation ended with Wilson-Raybould saying that she was “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” and that "I am not under any illusion how the prime minister has and gets things that he wants. I am just stuck doing the best job that I can."
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.”
In her written submission Wilson-Raybould said she recorded the conversation because she “I had reason to believe that it was likely to be an inappropriate conversation.” She said she had never done this before, and has not done so since, recognizing that her recording of this conversation would otherwise be inappropriate
Law societies in Canada prohibit lawyers from knowingly recording conversations with clients without their knowledge, including the Law Society of Ontario, which Wilson-Raybould belongs to. In a statement the Society told CTV News that it “does not comment on possible breaches of the Rules of Professional Conduct."
“I did this simply to ensure that my notes were accurate and given the ongoing pressure and attempts to interfere in this case, the nature of conversations that had occurred… and my strong suspicion that this matter would continue to escalate in even more inappropriate ways,” she wrote.
Her unprecedented decision to then make the recording public as part of her submission was done, she says, to allow Canadians to decide for themselves whether Wernick’s comments amount to the “veiled threats” that she alleges, and which he denies.
Wernick will soon be retiring from his job as Canada’s top public servant, a decision he says is because 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 have called for his resignation given his role in the still unfolding controversy.
COPIES OF TEXTS, EMAILS
In her initial hours-long committee appearance she offered an in-depth account of approximately 20 exchanges --10 phone calls and 10 meetings -- specifically on the SNC-Lavalin case. She also worked through a chronology of communications, 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.
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 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had issued.
What she has handed over to the committee stays within the lines of what is permitted in the waiver, which includes any relevant information related to the case against SNC-Lavalin over her years-long tenure as attorney general.
Contained within the new documents are transcripts as well as screen shots of conversations she or Prince had. These include email exchanges with members of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office who the documents describe as being involved in the “mucking around” on the case.
In one it details a phone call Prince had with Morneau’s deputy chief of staff Justin To, in which he allegedly said that Wilson-Raybould had “a philosophical problem” with the entire promise of a deferred prosecution agreement, which remains a yet-to-be-used tool that this government passed through an omnibus budget bill last year.
“She hated it the whole time and wouldn't even use it if we could," To is quoted as saying to Prince, who said that was incorrect.
It also includes the conversation between Wilson-Raybould and Prince about a meeting Prince was asked to have with Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford and then-principal adviser Gerald Butts.
In the instance of the meeting between Trudeau’s top two staffers and Prince, the text messages back up Wilson-Raybould’s telling of the interactions, and contradicts Butts saying during his March 6 committee appearance that “there was no urgency to attend that meeting.”
The meeting request was labeled “URGENT” the documents show.
Though the texts do not offer any evidence to dispute Butts’ saying that the recounting of the exchange with Prince was taken out of context and that he had a "very different recollection of that meeting."
MORE DETAILS ON RESIGNATION
Wilson-Raybould’s submission also shed new light on the series of events that led to her ultimately resigning from her role as veterans’ affairs minister, which she was shuffled into in January.
She had previously told the committee that she believed she was shuffled out of her job because of her refusal to change her mind about the case, but in the new statement Wilson-Raybould said she took Trudeau at his word when he insisted that wasn’t the case.
Though, at the time she says she made the decision to resign if her replacement decided to issue a directive to interfere in the SNC-Lavalin matter, “as this would confirm my suspicions as to the reason for the shuffle of me in particular.”
A deferred prosecution agreement has not been pursued by current Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti, though the government has made signals that they aren’t ruling it out.
She also confirmed that she was offered the Indigenous services job, as Butts had testified. She said she was shocked they’d offer it to her since she says she made it clear from the moment the Liberals started assembling a transition team, that she’d never be able to fill that role.
Wilson-Raybould also said that she had a series of meetings with Trudeau in Vancouver after the initial story broke, and in the days before she ended up resigning from cabinet on Feb. 12.
“The prime minister stated publicly when issues about the propriety of the government’s conduct in relation to the SNC matter arose that my ongoing presence in Cabinet spoke for itself. I resigned the next day and I trust my resignation also speaks for itself,” Wilson-Raybould says in her statement.
In the opening remarks of the new documents, Wilson-Raybould says her view is that the real issues at the heart of the SNC-Lavalin scandal are not about “how things are ‘experienced’” or considerations like caucus dynamics, political ambitions, or poll numbers. Rather she says it is about prosecutorial independence, the rule of law, and Canada’s democratic institutions.
She also offers that she thinks all sides should be working across party lines to fix what she calls “fissures and weaknesses” in Canadian institutions, and that she looks forward to a future where “we truly do politics differently,” seeming to lean on a phrase Trudeau regularly touted during the 2015 campaign.
The opposition wanted to invite Wilson-Raybould back to testify again -- something she was open to -- but Liberal MPs on the House Justice Committee shut down the study, saying that they’d heard all they needed to.
Wilson-Raybould also offered that while she has nothing further to add to the formal process, if she was asked or compelled to participate in a future investigation or parliamentary process, she would.
In a statement reacting to the new information, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called it “concrete evidence that proves Justin Trudeau led a campaign to politically interfere in SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution.” He called the entire affair “corruption on top of corruption on top of corruption.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the evidence was “so compelling and well-documented” that an independent public inquiry is needed.
“The PMO has tried to spin this as a miscommunication or personal disagreement… The former Attorney General repeatedly made clear to the Prime Minister and those around him that their inappropriate actions would be seen as political interference – and they ignored her,” Singh said in a statement.
Since her testimony, Trudeau has faced calls to resign, the House of Commons agenda has been largely usurped by opposition-prompted procedural moves, and several other high-profile officials have resigned amid insistence that nothing improper occurred.
The PMO’s statement claims that “all facts are on the table now,” and that the Liberal government is focused on “moving forward as a team on the issues that matter to Canadians and governing in the best interests of the country.”
All eyes are set to be on Parliament Hill when MPs return on Monday, particularly when Liberal MPs convene for their weekly caucus meeting on Wednesday. There, it is likely that the developments that have occurred on this file over the last few days will come up, as some of her colleagues are expected to get up and call for her removal.
With files from Graham Slaughter