Wilson-Raybould says she got ‘veiled threats’ on SNC-Lavalin
Canada’s former attorney general gave a detailed, explosive account of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top aides pressuring her to solve a legal problem for SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. -- testimony that escalates a controversy that has already claimed Trudeau’s top aide.
Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke to lawmakers Wednesday in Ottawa, breaking her silence since the story erupted this month. She laid out a series of conversations she or her staff had with Trudeau, his chief of staff, his top bureaucrat, his principal secretary and other aides during which she was pressed to change her mind and intervene in the case.
SNC-Lavalin (SNC.TO), an engineering firm based in vote-rich Quebec, had been pushing for a deferred prosecution agreement to end a criminal case against the firm dating back years, related to corruption charges. The company’s stock plunged the most in six years on Oct. 10 when the Public Prosecution Service of Canada ruled out a negotiated settlement that would have allowed SNC to avoid a trial.
Wilson-Raybould’s version of events suggests Trudeau’s office tried for months to end the case to avoid job losses and the company’s relocation to London. She said she resisted intervening because she wanted to uphold the principle of judicial independence, and that the officials ignored her repeated instructions to stop raising the issue.
“I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere,” she said, calling it “an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement."
She also said she faced “veiled threats if a deferred prosecution agreement was not made available.” Such an agreement would have allowed SNC-Lavalin, which employs about 9,000 people in Canada, settle charges that could prevent the company from bidding on federal contracts.
The testimony will only fuel the ongoing scandal, which has driven Trudeau’s Liberals lower in national opinion polls ahead of an election this fall. The ordeal evokes scandals of the Liberals’ past, which is marked by hand-in-glove ties with corporate Canada, particularly in Quebec. The political fallout, however, is difficult to predict -- Trudeau’s path to re-election runs largely through Quebec, where his defense of the iconic company has been applauded.
Wilson-Raybould identified a series of phone calls and meetings between her or her staff, and Trudeau or several of his staff. They include chief of staff Katie Telford; former principal secretary Gerald Butts, who has already resigned; Trudeau aides Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques. She also cited communications with Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his chief of staff Ben Chin.
In all, she cited 10 phone calls and 10 meetings that included a total of 11 people outside her office, all steadily urging her to intervene out of a fear that SNC-Lavalin would cut its workforce or relocate its head office.
Wilson-Raybould said she met Trudeau on Sept. 17. “The prime minister raised the issue immediately. The prime minister asked me to help out, to find a solution here for SNC," she said. She said she’d told him she had made up her mind. “The prime minister again cited the potential loss of jobs and SNC moving," while also stressing that he represents an electoral district in Quebec. She said that Michael Wernick, the clerk of the privy council, also warned her that the company “will likely be moving to London” without an intervention.
Discussions continued nonetheless. Wilson-Raybould said that Bouchard at one point warned: “We can have the best policy in the world but we need to get reelected.”
She met Butts in December in Ottawa, and was already frustrated by what she called “the barrage of people hounding me and my staff.” She pushed back. "I raised how I needed everybody to stop talking to me about SNC, as I had made up my mind and that the engagements were inappropriate,” she said.
She read a text-message conversation between her and her chief-of-staff, Jessica Prince, who was relaying a conversation with Butts and Telford. Wilson-Raybould claimed that Prince was told by Butts that “there is no solution here that does not involve some interference.” She said that Prince told her that Telford said: “we don’t want to debate legalities anymore.”
Wilson-Raybould was ultimately moved in a cabinet shuffle last month, and agreed to take the position of Minister of Veterans’ Affairs. That was her job when the scandal broke. Trudeau sought to downplay it by saying Wilson-Raybould’s presence in cabinet should speak for itself. She resigned cabinet the next day. Butts later quit, saying he was preparing to defend his reputation.
SNC-Lavalin has said it’s no longer focused on getting a remediation agreement, but instead on fighting the case. It’s already facing legal proceedings that allege it delayed disclosing a decision by the country’s prosecution director to not offer it a remediation agreement, from Sept. 4 to Oct. 10. SNC-Lavalin said Wednesday the “final decision” was only made on Oct. 9.
While concerns over job losses at the company were raised in the conversations, she said political considerations were also brought up, including from the prime minister.
Wilson-Raybould said she didn’t think it was inappropriate to discuss the potential of job losses early on, but became inappropriate to continually do it, and to raise the political ramifications of the situation.
“Where they became very clearly inappropriate was when political issues came up -- like the election in Quebec, like losing the election were SNC to move its headquarters,” Wilson-Raybould said.