Former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould could be booted from the Liberal fold as early as the next caucus meeting and Justice Committee chair Anthony Housefather said he’s “rethinking” his earlier support for her continued presence.
“The phone call being recorded, I think was not acceptable. I think it’s a breach of the ethical duties of an attorney and I’m disappointed that Ms. Wilson-Raybould did that,” Housefather said of the 17-minute conversation between her and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick that the committee released on Friday.
“It caused me to reflect on my previous comments … where I said I hoped (she) stays in caucus. I’m rethinking that,” he said.
Housefather addressed the secret recording after emerging from an in-camera Justice meeting Tuesday morning in which Conservative and New Democrat motions to re-open the committee’s investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair were ostensibly denied.
Housefather’s remarks about Wilson-Raybould’s tape she submitted as supplementary evidence echo Labour Minister Patty Hajdu, who, over the weekend, called it “unethical” and “deceptive”. He further added that “the responsible and ethical thing to do is advise the person on the other end of the phone that you are recording.”
As Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre’s budget filibuster continues in the House of Commons, with faint hopes the government will cave and allow further investigation, New Democrat MP Daniel Blaikie reiterated his party’s calls for a public inquiry after Tuesday’s third unsuccessful attempt to have parliament reopen the file.
Last week the Ethics Committee’s Liberal majority voted down a motion to open another investigation; previously the Justice Committee denied Wilson-Raybould a second opportunity to provide additional testimony.
“I’m not confident that we’ll see a lot more on this issue at the Justice committee,” said Blaikie who attended the in-camera session. “What I can say is now more than ever we really do need a public inquiry … we need to have somebody looking at this whose political future isn’t tied to the outcome.”
The SNC-Lavalin matter has beset Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government since a February 7, 2019 Globe and Mail story alleged Wilson-Raybould was replaced as Justice minister after refusing to defer SNC-Lavalin’s charges to remediation, a new criminal code provision in 2018’s omnibus budget bill.
The Québec construction firm and two of its subsidiaries are accused of paying $48 million in bribes to Libyan officials to win contracts there between 2001 and 2011. If convicted, and without a deferred prosecution agreement, the company faces a 10-year bidding ban on federal contracts.
While the Liberal government has previously voted against a public inquiry in the House, Blaikie said such an inquiry would be preferable to “these pseudo-investigations on Parliament Hill … that let(s) Canadians know; here’s what’s at stake, here’s what’s important and here’s how to interpret the evidence.”
What’s at stake according to many pundits, opposition MPs, and even Wilson-Raybould herself, is the credibility of the country’s rule of law and the confidence Canadians have in the fairness of their justice system. What’s at stake for the government, according to testimony and public statements from Wernick, Trudeau, and his former principal secretary Gerald Butts, are 9000 SNC jobs that could be at risk if the company is convicted of the charges. Both Butts and Wernick have since resigned over the imbroglio.
During the stilted and at times tense taped conversation between the former Attorney General and the nation’s top civil servant, there appears a great divide between interlocutors on the legitimacy of Wilson-Raybould’s “interfering” in the company’s criminal trial.
Wilson-Raybould: “Does [Trudeau] understand the gravity of what this potentially could mean? This is not just about saving jobs, this is about interfering with one of our fundamental institutions. This is like breaching a constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence.”
Wernick: “I don’t think he sees it as that.”
Wilson-Raybould: “Well then nobody’s explaining that to him Michael!”
Through the 17-minute call that occurred December 19, 2018, Wilson-Raybould, who was shuffled out of the Justice portfolio on Janauray 12, 2019 and then resigned from cabinet a month later, rebuffs multiple overtures by Wernick to consider a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin.
“I think (Trudeau’s) going to find a way to get it done,” says Wernick of diverting the trial. “I wanted you to be aware of that.”
Even before the taped conversation was released, and based on Wilson-Raybould’s testimony to the Justice Committee alone, five former Attorney Generals—Peter MacKay (Canada), Douglas Grinslade Lewis (Canada), Jonathan Denis (Alberta), Colin Gabelmann (B.C.) and Cecil Clarke (Nova Scotia)—signed a letter to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki urging a criminal investigation under section 139(2) of the Criminal Code for obstruction of justice.
“As the Honourable Wilson-Raybould said in her testimony,” the five wrote in a February 28 letter.“(she) experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.”
Asked if the recorded conversation vindicated Wilson-Raybould’s version of events, Housefather called it “an unfortunate lack of communication between colleagues” that was coloured by the “surreptitiously” recorded nature of it.
“The fact that the conversation was taped shows that there was a lack of trust here,” he said. “I think it’s hard to even look at this conversation in its entirety objectively because one party knew it was being taped and the other party didn’t.”
Conservative MP and Justice Committee member Michael Cooper told reporters following the Justice meeting that he was disappointed but not surprised with the outcome.
“Once again the Liberals shot down our motion to hear from all of the key players in the SNC-Lavalin matter,” he said. “It’s clear they are at the control of the PMO, doing the bidding of the PMO.”
In addition to Wernick and Butts, Wilson-Raybould has alleged other “key players” pressured her to go easy on SNC-Lavalin. These include Finance Minister Bill Morneau, his chief-of-staff Ben Chin, Trudeau’s senior advisor Mathieu Bouchard, and Trudeau himself. According to Wilson-Raybould, the latter four suggested favourable treatment of SNC-Lavalin was crucial for Liberal electoral success in Québec’s provincial election and the looming federal election this year.
Former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott’s caucus membership is also imperilled after she told Maclean’s magazine that “there was evidence of an attempt to politically interfere with the justice system … on the criminal trial that has been described by some as the most important and serious prosecution of corporate corruption in modern Canadian history.”
A friend of Wilson-Raybould, Philpott resigned from cabinet in early March stating she had lost confidence in the Trudeau government.