Bill Morneau's alleged role in the SNC-Lavalin affair

Finance minister Bill Morneau has denied that he and his office put undue pressure on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to defer SNC-Lavalin’s bribery and corruption charges, contrary to her testimony Wednesday.

Jason Unrau Montreal QC

Finance minister Bill Morneau has denied that he and his office put undue pressure on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to defer SNC-Lavalin’s bribery and corruption charges, contrary to her testimony Wednesday.

Wilson-Raybould told the Justice committee that the Finance ministry was “one of the first communications about the deferred prosecution agreement” received from outside the Justice Department and that Morneau’s chief of staff Ben Chin had emailed “to talk about SNC and what we could do.”

“He said to (my chief of staff Jessica Prince) that if (SNC-Lavalin) don’t get a deferred prosecution agreement, they will leave Montreal, and it’s the Québec election right now, so we can’t have that happen,” Raybould-Wilson testified of Chin’s September 6, 2018 overture.  

Today in Toronto, Morneau defended his underlings, “who made (Wilson-Raybould’s) staff aware of the economic consequences of decisions, about the importance of thinking about jobs.” But Morneau skirted questions about the alleged partisan nature of Chin’s communication; that considerations about the fate of SNC-Lavalin should be viewed in the context of Québec’s October 2018 provincial election.

“My staff and team are going to be in constant communication with other teams across the government. Always talking about the importance of the economy, always talking about the importance of jobs,” said Morneau, who rejected Wilson-Raybould’s testimony that he personally pressured her in the House of Commons.

“She approached me,” Morneau said.

According to Wilson-Raybould, almost two weeks after Chin’s email and on the floor of the Commons, Morneau came to her where “he again stressed the need to save jobs and I told him that the engagements from his office to mine on SNC had to stop – that they were inappropriate.”

SNC-Lavalin and two of its subsidiaries stand accused of paying $48 million in bribes to Libyan officials to win contracts there between 2001 and 2011. The company faces a 10-year ban on bidding for federal contracts if convicted while a deferred prosecution agreement – a new criminal code provision slipped into 2018’s budget bill – would allow fines and corporate accountability undertakings to supplant a criminal prosecution.

Charged on February 19, 2015, SNC-Lavalin began its own engagements with elected officials a year later, just four months after the Liberals won their majority government.

On Feb. 2, 2016, company officials met to discuss “justice and law enforcement” with Francois-Philippe Champagne, then-parliamentary secretary to Morneau; later that same month, amidst similar “justice and law” discussions with the Prime Minister’s Office, SNC-Lavalin would meet with Morneau's senior policy adviser Robert Asselin.

From there, SNC-Lavalin’s lobbying proliferated to include Foreign Affairs, Economic Development the Privy Council, Public Safety, Treasury Board and even the Environment ministry. From the beginning of 2017, nearly 20 meetings occurred between SNC-Lavalin and the PMO to discuss “justice and law enforcement are recorded; 51 lobbying engagements altogether.

In September 2017, the government began consultation on deferred prosecution agreements and in March of 2018, the provision is included in a 582-page budget bill.

Yesterday, during explosive testimony before the Justice committee Wilson-Raybould said she resisted pressure from the Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s then-chief advisor Gerald Butts, Morneau and Trudeau himself, to influence the Director of Public Prosecutions to change course when it had already decided to pursue the case against SNC-Lavalin in court.

Wilson-Raybould’s testimony also implicates Wernick, Butts, Trudeau and Morneau for suggesting a favourable treatment of SNC-Lavalin was crucial for election success; particularly the October 2018 provincial election that the Québec Liberal Party would go on to lose, but also the looming federal election that will happen later this year.

More than three weeks after Action démocratique du Québec’s victory in the provincial election, according to Wilson-Raybould the PMO’s attention with respect to SNC-Lavalin shifted to the general election. In a conversation between Jessica Prince and Trudeau’s senior advisor Mathieu Bouchard, Wilson-Raybould alleges “Mathieu said that if  – 6 months from the election – SNC announces they are moving their headquarters out of Canada, that is bad. He said ‘we can have the best policy in the world, but we need to be re-elected.’”

During Finance committee deliberations today on legislation aimed at catching Canadian companies engaged in offshore tax evasion – nearly a week after Liberal chair Wayne Easter abruptly ended proceedings over SNC-Lavalin questions – members continued to dispute the extent and propriety of Morneau’s involvement.

“I’d love to get into that debate, because pressure on a cabinet minister is normal,” said Easter, who like Morneau, claimed discussions with Wilson-Raybould over SNC-Lavalin was about protecting jobs.

Opposition members of the committee also wanted to know if Morneau was giving more special treatment to SNC-Lavalin with respect to the offshore tax avoidance legislation – questions Easter ruled beyond the scope of Thursday’s proceedings.

On top of bribery and corruption charges, SNC-Lavalin faces, in 2016 the company was among scores of businesses and individuals named in the Panama Papers: documents obtained from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca about a massive, global tax evasion network. SNC-Lavalin was cited for paying $22 million to offshore companies to get contracts in Algeria.

New Democrat MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault attended the meeting and afterward called Easter’s remarks on pressure against Wilson-Raybould “incredible.”

“What crossed the line is really when you talk about elections. Not only the Québec election but even the federal election,” said Dusseault. “And who is Morneau speaking for? Is he speaking on behalf of SNC or on behalf of all Canadians for which he is the public servant?”

In the wake of La Presse reports that SNC-Lavalin spent $30,000 in 2015 to ply Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saadi Gaddafi with Montréal prostitutes, Dusseault said the company’s behaviour is “concerning”, even “criminal”.

“It’s very concerning. Of course all the things the SNC made in Libya, what they made even in Canada for the son of (then-Libyan dictator Muammar) Gaddafi is very concerning and disturbing actually. More than that, it’s actually criminal that they paid for sexual services for someone in Canada.”

Conservative committee member Blake Richards also took issue with Easter’s remarks; that the actions of the PMO and the finance minister over SNC-Lavalin, described by Wilson-Raybould during her Justice committee testimony, amounted to standard operating procedure.

“That was incredibly shocking to hear another member of the Liberal government, that they believe the type of pressure that the minister of finance, his staff, in addition to the prime minister were putting on Jody Wilson-Raybould is something that is normal and appropriate,” said Blake “If that’s normal and appropriate in this government it just indicates all the more reason why they need to go.”


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