OTTAWA — Liberals are hoping they’ll get some ammunition today to fight back against accusations of political interference in the justice system when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary tells his side of the SNC-Lavalin saga.
Gerald Butts will be testifying this morning on the affair — which has cost Trudeau two cabinet ministers and his most trusted adviser — at the House of Commons justice committee.
He’ll be followed in the afternoon by the top federal public servant, Michael Wernick, and the deputy minister of justice, Nathalie Drouin, both of whom figured prominently in former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s explosive testimony last week. She accused Trudeau, Butts, other senior staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, Wernick and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office of inappropriately pressuring her to halt a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
The two senior bureaucrats testified two weeks ago, but that was before Wilson-Raybould accused Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council, of issuing veiled threats that she would lose her post as justice minister and attorney general if she didn’t intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case. Wilson-Raybould was moved to the veterans affairs post in a small cabinet shuffle in mid-January — a move she believes was punishment for not acquiescing to the pressure.
She accepted the new post but resigned a month later after allegations of improper pressure surfaced.
Since Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, opposition parties have called for Wernick, who is supposed to be non-partisan, to be fired.
Wilson-Raybould also revealed that she didn’t agree with legal advice given her by Drouin about her options after the director of public prosecutions decided last September not to invite the Montreal engineering giant to negotiate a remediation agreement. In her first appearance at committee, Drouin refused to reveal what advice she gave Wilson-Raybould, citing solicitor-client privilege.
Since then, however, Trudeau has waived privilege and cabinet confidentiality for Wilson-Raybould and all those who dealt with her on SNC-Lavalin during her time as attorney general.
At the time, Wilson-Raybould could have legally instructed the public prosecutor to negotiate a remediation agreement — a legal tool in corporate corruption cases, somewhat akin to a plea bargain. It would force the company to pay stiff penalties but avoid a criminal conviction that could financially cripple it.
Within a few days of today’s testimony, Trudeau is expected to weigh in with his take on the affair, giving the most comprehensive accounting of how the SNC-Lavalin matter was handled that he has given yet. His statement could come as early as tonight, but more likely Friday or early next week.
“We’ll be listening carefully to the voices, testimonies and opinions expressed,” Cameron Ahmad, a spokesman for Trudeau, said Tuesday. “There will be more to say in the coming days and weeks as we continue to reflect on next steps.”
Since the furor erupted a month ago, Trudeau has offered only general denials of any wrongdoing. He has said he totally disagrees with Wilson-Raybould’s characterization of events. He has insisted his government balanced the need to respect the independence of the judicial system with its concern about the potential loss of 9,000 jobs if the prosecution of the Montreal engineering giant went ahead. If it’s convicted, SNC-Lavalin could be banned from federal contracts for 10 years.
He sounded a somewhat more conciliatory note at a partisan rally Monday night, a few hours after Treasury Board president Jane Philpott handed in her resignation, citing her loss of confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. He acknowledged that concerns about the way staff and officials conducted themselves “must be taken very seriously and I can assure you that I am.”
Butts’ testimony is expected to contradict Wilson-Raybould’s version of events, in some detail.
He resigned from Trudeau’s office last month, insisting neither he nor anyone else in the Prime Minister’s Office had done anything wrong, but said he didn’t want to be a distraction from the government’s work. His letter of resignation suggested that he’d be freer to defend his reputation — and presumably that of Trudeau himself and his other senior staff — from outside the office.
After Wilson-Raybould’s testimony last week, Butts asked to appear before the justice committee, where he said he would “produce relevant documents.” He is expected to back up his version of events with emails, text messages and other documentation, much as Wilson-Raybould did in her testimony.
Wilson-Raybould told the committee last week that she believes the pressure she faced was inappropriate but not illegal.
Both she and Philpott have said they intend to remain in the Liberal caucus, despite no longer having confidence in the prime minister.
The Canadian Press