Trudeau says ethics watchdog to decide truth in SNC Lavalin affair

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Ottawa: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it will be up to the country’s ethics watchdog to decide who is telling the truth in the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau, or former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.

But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wants the RCMP to investigate what he contends is possible obstruction of justice by the prime minister.

Scheer wrote RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki on Thursday, calling for an investigation. He also reiterated his call for Trudeau to resign.

Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould detailed what she described as a relentless campaign, including veiled threats, from Trudeau, his senior staff, Canada’s top public servant and the finance minister’s office, for her to order a “remediation agreement” for SNC-Lavalin to help it avoid criminal prosecution.

The Montreal engineering giant faces fraud and corruption charges regarding efforts to land business deals in Libya and has lobbied hard for a “remediation agreement” to allow it to pay restitution and avoid a trial. A conviction on the charges could mean a ban on bidding for federal contracts for up to 10 years.

Speaking in suburban Montreal on Thursday morning, Trudeau said he totally disagrees with how Wilson-Raybould characterized discussions she had with him and others about the case.

The prime minister said the federal ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, will settle disagreements over what happened. Dion initiated an investigation into the affair two weeks ago.

“Canadians need to know that we have an officer of Parliament who is tasked with a specific role to make sure that in questions where there are disagreements amongst politicians, amongst elected officials, there is an arbiter who is empowered to be like a judge, who is an officer of Parliament, who will make a determination in this issue,” Trudeau said after an announcement at the Canadian Space Agency.

“So, while political parties and various people are making, or trying to draw a lot of attention to this issue, there is a process, both at the justice committee and indeed at the ethics commissioner, that will make a determination on what actually happened here.”

Over nearly four hours of explosive testimony Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould told the House of Commons justice committee there were 10 meetings and 10 phone calls involving 11 people between September and December 2018, all aimed at getting her to “politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada.”

Wilson-Raybould detailed a September meeting she said she had with Trudeau where he brought up the possibility of SNC-Lavalin leaving Quebec and the spectre of job losses during a provincial election campaign.

Asked Thursday, Trudeau wouldn’t say if the company had told him it planned to move its headquarters if it couldn’t avoid criminal prosecution in Canada.

He said there were “many and broad conversations about the importance of defending jobs” across the country and there was “no doubt” those discussions didn’t cross any legal lines.

“Canadians expect their government to look for ways to protect jobs, to grow the economy, and that’s exactly what we’ve done every step of the way,” Trudeau said. “We’ve also done it in a way that has respected our laws, and respected the independence of the judiciary, of that there actually is no doubt. There are disagreements in perspective on this, but I can reassure Canadians that we were doing our job and were doing it in a way that respects and defends our institutions.”

Top ministers echoed the prime minister in separate appearances Thursday.

In Toronto, Finance Minister Bill Morneau denied that his chief of staff, Ben Chin, did anything inappropriate in discussing the SNC-Lavalin case with Wilson-Raybould’s staff.

“My staff, of course, is going to be constantly in communication with other teams across the government, always talking about the importance of the economy, always talking about the importance of jobs and that is their appropriate role,” Morneau said. “I think that Ben was acting entirely appropriately in that capacity.”

Morneau did not directly address Wilson-Raybould’s assertion that Chin pressured her staff to take into consideration the political impact on last fall’s Quebec election if SNC-Lavalin were to move its operations out of the country. He did say that he did not direct Chin to do that.

Morneau emphasized that the company employs 9,000 people across the country and thousands of pensioners are dependent on its continued operation. It was appropriate to take that into consideration, while respecting the rule of law, he said.

In a speech to the Empire Club of Canada, Wilson-Raybould’s successor as justice minister and attorney general, David Lametti, said her testimony was an extraordinary symbol of transparency in the government. He also said it’s useful for the attorney general to sit at the cabinet table, unlike in some other jurisdictions, where the attorney general and justice minister are distinct.

“Just like the world outside politics, each of us is made stronger by talking to each other and coming to better understandings together,” he said. “I believe that these discussions can improve the quality of decisionmaking. The attorney-general is not an island, even in circumstances where a final decision rests with him or her.”

While Trudeau and his ministers seemed intent on projecting a business-as-usual confidence, the Conservatives requested an emergency debate in the House of Commons Thursday on Wilson-Raybould’s testimony. The NDP supported the request, which was granted by Speaker Geoff Regan.

Wilson-Raybould was shuffled to the veterans-affairs portfolio in January, a move she believes was a result of her not doing as Trudeau and his staff wanted, even though they denied that was the case.

As for Wilson-Raybould’s future as a Liberal, Trudeau said he is still mulling over whether she will be allowed to remain in caucus.

“I have taken knowledge of her testimony and there are still reflections to have on next steps,” he said.

The Canadian Press