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As the SNC-Lavalin scandal plagues Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government, Liberal MPs used their majority Tuesday to block an Ethics committee investigation into alleged political interference by Trudeau and other key figures over criminal proceedings against the Québec company.
“A cavalcade of contradictions in a cover-up,” said Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre of the meeting’s contents and result, and the changing story on ex-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s removal from the portfolio in January, her resignation from cabinet and the resignation of others who are implicated.
New Democrat MP Tracy Ramsey said Liberals’ reasons against an Ethics committee probe were more “wishy-washy arguments … essentially, it’s the same message to Canadians, ‘we’re not interested in getting to the truth.’”
The public first learned of potential political meddling in the company’s legal woes after February 7th Globe and Mail story alleging Wilson-Raybould faced repeated overtures by the Prime Minister’s Office including Trudeau’s former advisor Gerald Butts, Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick and Trudeau to defer SNC-Lavalin’s charges to a deferred prosecution agreement. Such a move would allow the company to avoid trial by pleading guilting, pay a fine and comply with any integrity audits as mandated by the agreement.
Since the Globe story and Wilson-Raybould’s resignation, Butts and Wernick have also resigned, as well as former Treasury Board President Jane Philpott, a friend of Wilson-Raybould’s who indicated in an interview with Maclean’s last week that there is more to the story.
“There was evidence of an attempt to politically interfere with the justice system in its work on the criminal trial that has been described by some as the most important and serious prosecution of corporate corruption in modern Canadian history,” Philpott told Maclean’s.
The Québec construction firm and two of its subsidiaries stand accused of paying $48 million in bribes to Libyan officials to win contracts there between 2001 and 2011 – if convicted, the company faces a 10-year ban on bidding for federal contracts.
While the media’s attention was focused on Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s release of the federal budget on March 19, in a closed-door meeting the Justice committee’s Liberal majority voted to end their SNC-Lavalin hearings. The same day, Conservative MP Peter Kent wrote the Ethics committee to request an opening another probe.
“Because Canada is a nation founded on the rule of law, who one knows in PMO should not get special favours,” Kent told the committee of why he tabled his motion for an investigation, that would welcome additional testimony from Wilson-Raybould, and other key figures implicated in the affair who have not yet testified. These include Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford and Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff Jessica Prince.
Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is also investigating the matter but has taken an indeterminate leave of absence because of health issues. Previous investigations by the office into Trudeau’s ethical lapses – his 2015 vacation at the Aga Khan’s island and accepting a gift of sunglasses from the premier of Prince Edward Island – resulted in an admonishment by the commissioner for the trip and a $100 fine for accepting two pairs of shades.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the vice-chair of the Ethics committee, said during Tuesday’s meeting that “it makes far more sense to see what is said in (Wilson-Raybould’s) public statement,” referencing her forthcoming written submission to the Justice committee that is to include texts and emails related to her testimony.
“If necessary we can revisit this conversation,” said Erskine-Smith who noted Dion’s ongoing investigation. “It seems we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves at this committee … (Wilson-Raybould and Philpott) are not going to be able to say anything to this committee because of the (cabinet) oaths they made and because the waiver doesn’t apply.”
Prior to Wilson-Raybould’s appearance at the Justice committee, Trudeau waved cabinet confidence and solicitor-client privilege during the time she was in cabinet for her testimony.
Like the New Democrats, Erskine-Smith said he supports holding a public inquiry into the matter. The Ontario MP also said he supports “broadening that waiver” if unanswered questions remain following Wilson-Raybould’s supplementary written submission to Justice.
“I do think there would be absolutely no consequences if they stood in the House and gave their full story, I think that is legally true,” he said of suggestions either woman could rise in the Commons on a point of privilege to offer a more fulsome statement. Earlier this week, Liberal MP Judy Sgro offered a more vulgar version of the same option, that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott should “put up or shut up” by using their parliamentary privilege.
During the nearly two-hour Ethics committee meeting, New Democrat MP Daniel Blaikie disputed that parliamentary privilege overrides cabinet confidence. “The implication is that any former Liberal cabinet minister could just get up and talk about former cabinet meetings.”
“There seems to be an inconsistency in this,” said Blaikie. “There has to be a higher threshold.”
According to Justice committee chair Anthony Housefather, there are no plans to present a report on its SNC-Lavalin hearings. “That is up to the committee, not the chair. At this time no motion has been adopted to present a report,” wrote Housefather in an email.