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Jody Wilson-Raybould

Ex-AG alleges PM, senior officials tried to ‘politically interfere’ in SNC case; Trudeau ‘completely disagrees’

Thursday, February 28, 2019 @ 10:27 AM | By Cristin Schmitz

In an accusation strenuously denied by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Jody Wilson-Raybould alleged that before he removed her as attorney general of Canada last month, she and her then-chief of staff experienced sustained “very inappropriate” political interference and escalating “extraordinary” pressure from senior government officials, including the prime minister and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, to reverse her decision last fall not to shelve the criminal bribery prosecution of Montreal-based construction giant SNC-Lavalin in favour of a negotiated deferred prosecution agreement (DPA).

In three-and-a-half hours of dramatic testimony, including 22 pages of detailed opening remarks, Wilson-Raybould rocked the Commons Justice Committee, opening with this bombshell:

Jody Wilson-Raybould

Jody Wilson-Raybould

“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 as the attorney general of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.”

She testified, “these events involved 11 people, excluding myself and my political staff — from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office and the Office of the Minister of Finance. This included in-person conversations, telephone calls, e-mails and text messages. There were approximately 10 phone calls and 10 meetings specifically about SNC and I and/or my staff were a part of these meetings. Within these conversations, there were express statements regarding the necessity for interference in the SNC-Lavalin matter, the potential of consequences and veiled threats if a DPA was not made available to SNC.”

In recounting numerous high-level confidential conversations whose content made jaws drop in the committee room, Wilson-Raybould alleged, for example, that even though she told the prime minister at a Sept. 17, 2018, meeting also attended by Wernick, that she had done her own due diligence and had decided not to exercise her power to reverse the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) not to offer a DPA to SNC-Lavalin, the prime minister repeated his request to help “find a solution” for SNC-Lavalin — as otherwise many jobs would be lost and the company would move from Montreal. “Then to my surprise — [Wernick] started to make the case for the need to have a DPA. He said ‘There is a board meeting on Thursday [Sept. 20 with SNC-Lavalin] stock holders’ … ‘they will likely be moving to London if this happens’… ‘and there is an election in Quebec soon,’ ” Raybould recounted. “At that point the prime minister jumped in stressing that there is an election in Quebec [in October] and that ‘I am an MP in Quebec – the member for Papineau.’ ”

Wilson-Raybould recounted “ I was quite taken aback. My response — and I vividly remember this as well — was to ask the prime minister a direct question while looking him in the eye. I asked ‘Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the attorney general? I would strongly advise against it.”

She said the prime minister said “No, no, no, we just need to find a solution.”

Wilson-Raybould said Wernick then said that he spoke to the deputy minister of Justice and she had said that the attorney general could speak about the matter to the DPP. “I responded by saying no, I would not, that that would be inappropriate,” Wilson-Raybould recalled. “I further explained to the clerk and the prime minister that I had had a conversation with my deputy about options and what my position was on the matter. As a result, I agreed to, and undertook to the prime minister that I would have a conversation with my deputy [minister] and the clerk, but that these conversations would not change my mind.”

Wilson-Raybould outlined what she alleged were other “very inappropriate” subsequent attempts by assorted senior officials to impinge on her prosecutorial independence in respect of the SNC-Lavalin matter — which she firmly resisted.

However, she also suggested such actions do not amount to illegal conduct.

Under questioning from MPs, Wilson-Raybould said “no” when asked whether she was ever “directed” by the prime minister, Wernick or the PMO to overturn the DPP.

She also confirmed that directives from the attorney general to the DPP are rare, and that the attorney general has never used her power to issue a directive in a specific prosecution. “Nor has an attorney general in this country ever taken over a prosecution” — although she has that power, Wilson-Raybould told NDP MP Nathan Cullen. “It would be historic.”

In their exchange, Wilson-Raybould acknowledged it would have been “unlawful” for her to decide whether to offer SNC-Lavalin a DPA, based on political motivations.

“Is it unlawful for someone to ask you to do that?” Cullen asked.

After a pause, she replied “to direct me or to ask me?”

“Pressure you,” he replied. “Is it illegal for someone to pressure the attorney general to offer a special plea like this for political reasons? Is it illegal for someone just to pressure the attorney general to intervene on a case?”

“In my opinion, it’s not illegal,” responded Wilson-Raybould, who was a provincial Crown and First Nations leader in B.C. before she was elected to the Commons in 2015.

“It is very inappropriate depending on the context of the comments made, the nature of the pressure, the specific issues that are raised. It’s incredibly inappropriate and is an attempt to compromise, or impose upon an independent attorney general,” Wilson-Raybould said.

She confirmed that after she told the PMO she would not intervene in the DPP’s decision not to negotiate a DPA because it would be inappropriate to do so, she was repeatedly pressed to reconsider, notwithstanding her efforts to stop the communications directed at her and her staff.

Cullen took issue with what he saw as a line of questioning from Liberal MPs on the committee that essentially criticized Wilson-Raybould for not quitting as attorney general if she felt her independence was being impinged upon.

“I thought your integrity was enhanced by not quitting — by staying there, and … maintaining the rule of law,” he said.

“I have always acted with integrity, with purpose and with principle,” Wilson-Raybould observed. “I was doing that in my role as the attorney general when it came to SNC and the deferred prosecution agreement potential.”

Wilson-Raybould acknowledged that the events and their interpretation that she related differ materially from what Wernick and the prime minister have said on the subject.

However, she expressed her belief in Canadians “and their ability to hear the words that I’ve spoken, hear the facts that I’ve expressed to make their own determinations.”

Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Speaking to reporters at an evening event in Montreal to welcome the newly elected Liberal MP for Outremont, Trudeau strongly denied any inappropriate conduct in general terms, without addressing the specifics of the many allegations Wilson-Raybould had just made.

“We of course had discussions about the potential loss of 9,000 jobs in communities across the country, including the possible impact on pensions,” if SNC-Lavalin closed or moved, the prime minister acknowledged.

“In my capacity as prime minister it is my responsibility to always defend Canadian workers,” he stressed. “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. The decision around SNC-Lavalin was Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s, and hers alone. I want to confirm this again for Canadians as Ms. Wilson-Raybould herself confirmed today. This decision is the attorney general’s alone.”

Trudeau said he “welcomes” the Ethics Commissioner’s ongoing investigation of the SNC-Lavalin matter.

He said he will decide after he hears Wilson-Raybould’s full testimony, whether she can remain in the Liberal caucus (as she told reporters she intends to do) and can run again as a Liberal in the impending federal election.

Trudeau responded to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s call for his resignation as prime minister by noting Canadians will have a “clear choice to make” in the fall as to who they want to be the prime minister and governing party.

Wilson-Raybould noted in her opening statement that it is well established that the attorney general exercises prosecutorial discretion individually and independently. “These are not cabinet decisions.”

She also told MPs “it would be a very useful study for this committee to look at the role of the minister of Justice and the attorney general of Canada and whether or not those two roles should be bifurcated. I believe, and I have believed this for some time even before I became the attorney general, that our country would benefit from a detailed study and consideration around having the attorney general not sit around the cabinet table — like they have in the United Kingdom.”

Wilson-Raybould said there was “a concerted and sustained effort to attempt to politically interfere with my role as the attorney general. As the attorney general I did not let that happen.”

She noted, “I will say that it is appropriate for cabinet colleagues to draw to the attorney general’s attention what they see as important policy considerations that are relevant to decisions about how a prosecution will proceed. What is not appropriate is pressing the attorney general on matters that she or he cannot take into account, such as partisan political considerations, continuing to urge the attorney general to take [sic] her or his mind four months after the decision has been made, or suggesting that a collision with the prime minister on these matters should be avoided.”

Wilson-Raybould said she did not consider it her responsibility to resign as attorney general at the time she was experiencing the concerted pressure, but rather to stay in her role and defend the independence of the office of the DPP.

“I saw myself as the attorney general of the country who was doing her job to ensure and uphold the independence of the prosecutor, uphold the integrity of the justice system and the rule of law,” she explained.

In her chronology detailing what she alleged occurred, Wilson-Raybould highlighted the final events “that signal, in my experience, the final escalation in efforts by the prime minister’s office to interfere” in the SNC-Lavalin prosecution.

She recounted that on Dec. 18, 2018, her then-chief of staff, Jessica Prince, was “urgently summoned” to a meeting with the prime minister’s principal secretary, Gerry Butts, and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, to discuss SNC and where the attorney general was at “in terms of finding a solution. They told [Prince] that they felt like the issue was getting worse, and that I was not doing anything. They referenced a possible call [with the attorney general might happen] with the prime minister and the clerk [of the Privy Council] the next day.”

Wilson-Raybould read MPs a transcript of what she considered the most relevant sections of a text conversation she said she and Prince had almost immediately after that meeting:

Prince: “Basically, they want a solution — nothing new. They want external counsel retained to give you an opinion on whether you can review the DPP’s decision here, and whether you should in this case. I told them that would be interference. Gerry said, ‘Jess, there is no solution here that does not involve some interference.’ At least they are finally being honest about what they are asking you to do. Don’t care about the Public Prosecution Service of Canada’s independence. Katie was like, ‘We don’t want to debate legalities anymore.’ They keep being like, ‘We aren’t lawyers, but there has to be some solution here.’ ”

Wilson-Raybould said she asked Prince where things were left. Her chief of staff replied:

“So unclear. I said I would of course let you know about the conversation, and they said that they were going to kick the tires with a few people on this tonight. The Clerk was waiting outside when I left, but they said that they want to set up a call between you and the Prime Minister and the Clerk tomorrow. I said that of course you’d be happy to speak to your boss. They seem quite keen on the idea of you retaining an ex-Supreme Court of Canada judge to get advice on this. Katie Telford thinks it gives us cover in the business community and the legal community, and that it would allow the prime minister to say we were doing something. She was like, ‘if Jody is nervous, we would of course line up all kinds of people to write op-eds saying that what she is doing is proper.’ ”

Wilson-Raybould said she was asked to speak with Wernick the next day, Dec. 19, and took the call while she was alone.

“Given what occurred the previous day with my chief of staff I was determined to end all interference and conversations about this matter once and for all,” she said. “The clerk said he was calling about DPAs, SNC. He said he wanted to pass on where the prime minister was at. He spoke about the company’s board and the possibility of their selling out to someone else, moving their headquarters, and job losses. He said that the prime minister wanted to be able to say that he has tried everything he can within the legitimate tool box. The clerk said that the prime minister was quite determined, quite firm, but he wanted to know why the DPA route, which Parliament provided for, wasn’t being used. He said, ‘I think he is going to find a way to get it done, one way or another. He is in that kind of mood, and I wanted you to be aware of it.’ ”

Wilson-Raybould continued, “the clerk said he didn’t know if the prime minister was planning on calling me directly or ‘if he is thinking about somebody else to give him some advice. You know, he does not want to do anything outside of the box of what is legal or proper.’ He said that ‘the prime minister wants to understand more, to give him advice on this, or give you advice on this if you want to feel more comfortable you are not doing anything inappropriate or outside the frame.’ ”

Wilson-Raybould said she responded to Wernick “that I was 100 per cent confident that I was doing nothing inappropriate. I again reiterated my confidence in where I was, and my views on SNC and the DPA had not changed. I reiterated this as a constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence. I warned the clerk in this call that we were treading on dangerous ground here. I also issued a stern warning because, as the attorney general, I cannot act in a manner — and the prosecution cannot act in a manner — that is not objective, that isn’t independent. I cannot act in a partisan way and I cannot be politically motivated. This all screams of that.”

She told MPs Wernick “wondered whether anyone could speak to the [DPP] about the context around this, or get her to explain her reasoning. The clerk told me that he was going to have to report back to the prime minister before he leaves [for the Christmas break]. He said again that the prime minister was in a pretty firm frame of mind about this, and that he was a bit worried.”

Wilson-Raybould said she then asked Wernick what he was worried about. “The clerk then made the comment about how it is not good for the prime minister and his attorney general to be at loggerheads,” she recounted. “I told the clerk that I was giving him my best advice and that if he did not accept that advice, then it is the prime minister’s prerogative to do what he wants. But I am trying to protect the prime minister from political interference or perceived political interference, or otherwise. The clerk acknowledged that, but said that the prime minister does not have the power to do what he wants. All the tools are in my hands, he said.”

Wilson-Raybould said she responded to Wernick “I was having thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre, but that I was confident that I had given the prime minister my best advice to protect him and to protect the constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence.”

She alleged the clerk told her “that he was worried about a collision because the prime minister is pretty firm about this. He told me that he had seen the prime minister a few hours ago and that this is really important to him. That was essentially where the conversation ended, and I did not hear from the prime minister the next day.”

Wilson-Raybould said that when she next spoke with the prime minister Jan. 7, 2019 — when he informed her she would be moving Jan. 14 into the Veterans Affairs portfolio — she said she believed that the reason for the move was because of the SNC-Lavalin matter — which was denied.

Wilson-Raybould said that on Jan. 11, 2019, the deputy minister of Justice was informed by Wernick that a cabinet shuffle was imminent, and that deputy minister would get a new minister. “As part of this conversation the clerk told the deputy that one of the first conversations the new [Justice] minister will be expected to have with the prime minister would be on SNC Lavalin, in other words, that the new minister would be prepared to speak to the Prime Minister on this file,” Wilson-Raybould said. “The deputy recounted this to my chief of staff, who told me about the conversation.”

Wilson-Raybould said she had made up her mind to resign from her new cabinet post “immediately” if ever her successor as attorney general, David Lametti, directed the DPP to negotiate a DPA with SNC-Lavalin (this has not occurred).

“While I was the attorney general through these four months, leaving aside all of the very inappropriate political pressure and interference, I was confident in my role as the attorney general that I was the final decision maker on whether or not a directive would be introduced on the SNC matter,” Wilson-Raybould recalled. “So I knew, as long as I was the attorney general, this would not occur.”

But “I had serious concerns,” she added, “that if I was no longer the attorney general, that there would be a deferred prosecution agreement entered into and that it would be posted in the Gazette. As I said, I would have resigned from cabinet at that time.”

She told the Justice Committee she decided to accept the Veterans Affairs post last month because she still trusted the prime minister. “I had confidence in him, and so I decided to continue on around the cabinet table, with the concerns that I had around SNC, because I took the prime minister at his word.”

Murray Rankin

Murray Rankin

She said she was not at liberty to disclose the reasons for her subsequent resignation from cabinet Feb. 12 nor to divulge any conversations she might or might not have had with Trudeau since Jan. 14. She did not answer whether she still has confidence in the prime minister.

“I resigned from cabinet because I did not have confidence to sit around the cabinet table,” she stated. “That’s why I resigned.”

Both Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt and NDP Justice critic Murray Rankin told Wilson-Raybould that they completely believed her account.

“I believe, if we believe you — which I do — that there is no other conclusion that one can reasonable draw but that there was a sustained, consistent effort to interfere politically with the critical role that an attorney general must play in our legal system,” said Rankin, who noted he was “very shaken by what I’ve heard here today.”

“I’ve been a lawyer for over 40 years,” remarked Rankin. “I’ve taught a generation of law students about the rule of law. What I’ve heard today should make all Canadians extremely upset.”

Photo of Murray Rankin by Roy Grogan