Former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said Thursday she didn’t realize just how aggressively SNC-Lavalin had lobbied senior members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to create a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) regime, a legal avenue it hoped would help it avoid a criminal trial for alleged corporate wrongdoing.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion documented the extensive lobbying efforts — the content of which were largely unknown to the public until now — in his report on Trudeau’s ethics violations.
“That was of surprise to me. I did not have knowledge,” Wilson-Raybould said, in an interview with CBC News Network’s Power & Politics. “There were many conversations that were being had by former colleagues of mine, political staffers, around SNC, meeting with officials of the company and having discussions that I wasn’t aware of.”
Wilson-Raybould said she knew there were some talks between SNC-Lavalin and the upper echelons of the Liberal government, but she didn’t realize that the very idea of establishing a DPA regime came from the company itself.
“I undertook, as I was the minister of Justice, to amend the Criminal Code to bring in the new regime and provide that additional discretionary tool to prosecutors, but the extent of the relationship and engagement and the lobbying of that company — I was not aware of that and, to be honest, I find it curious that there were such detailed discussion that was not brought to my attention,” Wilson-Raybould said in an interview with host Vassy Kapelos.
While “curious,” Wilson-Raybould said she still believes there is nothing criminal about the actions of the prime minister, or the staff acting under his direction, on this file. Wilson-Raybould said as much during a House of Commons justice committee meeting on the affair in February. “I still stand by that answer that I gave at the committee,” she said Thursday.
The B.C. MP said she leaves it in the very “capable hands” of the RCMP to decide whether the prime minister’s conduct warrants a criminal investigation. She said the RCMP has not yet contacted her as part of any inquiry.
SNC-Lavalin called for ‘timely implementation’ of regime
Trudeau told Dion, before a meeting with SNC-Lavalin executives in 2016, he wasn’t familiar with a deferred prosecution regime, a legal avenue that is used in other jurisdictions to deal with corporate wrongdoing.
One of his senior staffers, Mathieu Bouchard, went to work studying how Canada could introduce a remediation agreement regime of its own. The government held a series of public consultations throughout 2017. In January 2018, Finance Minister Bill Morneau met with SNC-Lavalin CEO Neil Bruce on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the executive pushed the case for a remediation agreement. He asked Morneau that there be a “timely implementation of a regime via the federal budget.”
The company then provided Morneau and a staffer, Justin To, with a document that outlined how a remediation agreement regime would “increase the likelihood of a settlement of the company’s pending criminal charges, of the company maintaining its head office in Canada for the foreseeable future and of an increase in its workforce.”
Three weeks later, after the Davos meeting, the government introduced amendments to the Criminal Code to give federal prosecutors the option of pursuing remediation agreements with companies accused of criminality.
The new regime was billed as a way “to reduce the negative consequences of the wrongdoing for persons — employees, customers, pensioners and others — who did not engage in the wrongdoing, while holding responsible those individuals who did engage in that wrongdoing.”
The changes were added to the 2018 Federal Budget Implementation Act.
Dion said, based on interviews with expert witnesses, that non-fiscal items are typically included in a federal budget bill to expedite passage through Parliament.
In an interview with Dion as part of his investigation, Trudeau said SNC-Lavalin was not directly involved in the legislative process.
“According to Mr. Trudeau, SNC-Lavalin was a timely example of a company with a significant number of employees in Canada, that had engaged in alleged wrongdoing under previous management, and that was now trying to reform. A remediation agreement regime offered a way through for SNC-Lavalin, as had been the case for other large engineering firms in Europe which had benefited from this type of regime,” Dion said.
In mid-August 2018, Ben Chin, one of Morneau’s senior staffers, spoke with Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff, Jessica Prince, telling her that SNC-Lavalin was complaining about negotiations for a remediation agreement taking too long.
He asked if there was anything he could do to move the process along. Prince said the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, the independent body that prosecutes federal offences, was taking the lead on the file and that any request for a “status update” could be perceived as improper political interference.
Former Indigenous Service minister Jane Philpott, who left cabinet citing a lack of confidence in Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin matter, said she too was surprised to learn the extent of SNC-Lavalin’s advocacy for the creation of a remediation agreement regime.
“Many of the things in [Dion’s] report I was aware of, but I was not aware of all the things that came out in this week’s report,” Philpott said. “It was disturbing. It was unsettling to me to realize the extent to which officials took steps to be able to benefit the interests of a private corporation.”
On Sept. 4, 2018, Kathleen Roussel, the director of public prosecutions, informed SNC-Lavalin that she believed a remediation agreement would be inappropriate in its case. It’s that decision that then prompted Liberal government officials to encourage Wilson-Raybould to overrule Roussel and begin negotiating an agreement with the engineering firm — an option that was made available to her by virtue of the Criminal Code changes SNC-Lavalin lobbied the government to enact.
Dion found Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to influence Wilson-Raybould and get her to overrule the decision to not grant a DPA.
“The prime minister, directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms. Wilson-Raybould. 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,” Dion said.
Trudeau maintains he simply encouraged Wilson-Raybould to consider an alternative legal solution so as to help SNC-Lavalin avoid the potentially devastating effects of a criminal trial on the firm. A conviction could bar the construction company from future federal contracts.
Trudeau has said he believes he did nothing wrong — he did not direct her to follow his favoured course of action — and an apology is not necessary because he disagrees with the ethics commissioner’s conclusion that any sort of communication with the attorney general on the matter was inappropriate.
“I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadians’ jobs because that’s my job — to make sure that Canadians, communities and families across the country are supported, and that’s what I will always do,” Trudeau said Wednesday during a campaign-style stop in Fredericton.
Dion has said the attorney general should be free from interference, including from her fellow cabinet colleagues, on decisions related to criminal matters. Under federal law, a prosecutor is barred from considering the “national economic interest,” when deciding on whether to bring charges.
Trudeau has said cabinet ministers should be able to talk freely, when warranted, about public interest considerations around criminal prosecutions.