OTTAWA: Canada’s former attorney general on Wednesday accused Justin Trudeau’s inner circle of attempting to head off the fraud prosecution of an engineering giant – a case that has caused the prime minister major embarrassment eight months before elections.
Trudeau responded that he “completely disagrees with the former attorney general’s characterization of events”.
Jody Wilson-Raybould made her accusations before the House of Commons justice committee, which is investigating purported political meddling in the prosecution of the Montreal-based firm.
“I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin,“ one the world’s top construction and engineering firms, Wilson-Raybould said.
She also told the committee that she faced “veiled threats” and advice from Canada’s top bureaucrat, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, that “a collision with the prime minister on these matters should be avoided”.
Wilson-Raybould, who also was minister of justice, said she believes she was shuffled to another portfolio in January over her refusal to take action in the case.
For weeks, Trudeau’s government has been rocked by allegations first reported by The Globe and Mail newspaper that undue pressure was put on the former attorney general for an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin.
The Canadian company was charged in 2015 with corruption for allegedly bribing officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011 to secure government contracts during former strongman Moamer Kadhafi’s reign.
The firm, its international arm and another subsidiary are accused of having offered Can$47 million (US$36 million) in bribes to officials and of defrauding the Libyan government of Can$130 million (US$98 million).
The charges relate to the world’s largest irrigation project – the Great Man Made River Project – to provide fresh water to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte.
SNC-Lavalin has argued that those responsible for alleged wrongdoing left it long ago, and that holding it accountable for their criminal actions would severely hurt its business.
Trial set to proceed
It heavily lobbied the government, including senior officials in Trudeau’s office, for an out-of-court settlement that would include paying a fine and agreeing to put in place compliance measures.
But Wilson-Raybould refused to ask prosecutors to settle, and the trial is set to proceed.
She quit Trudeau’s cabinet earlier this month. Trudeau’s longtime friend and principal secretary Gerry Butts also resigned days later. Questions remain over their specific reasons for leaving.
After her four hours of testimony, which the opposition called damning, Tory leader Andrew Scheer urged the Liberal prime minister to resign, saying Trudeau “can no longer and in good standing with a clear conscience lead this nation.”
He also called for a federal police investigation into possible obstruction of justice by Liberal officials.
Trudeau has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, saying again Wednesday that he had made clear to his former attorney general that the “decision around SNC-Lavalin was Jody Wilson-Raybould’s and hers alone to make,“ which she confirmed in her testimony.
“I strongly maintain, as I have from the beginning that I and my staff always acted appropriately and professionally,“ he said.
Wilson-Raybould testified, “The prime minister asked me to help out, to find a solution for SNC, citing that if there is no DPA (deferred prosecution agreement), there would be many jobs lost and that SNC would move from Montreal.”
“I told him that I had done my due diligence and had made up my mind on SNC and that I was not going to interfere with the decision of the director (of public prosecutions),“ she said.
Wilson-Raybould went on to say that 11 government officials, including the finance minister, raised similar concerns that SNC-Lavalin might move its headquarters to London without a deal, or could face massive job losses if it was found guilty at trial – in an election year.
They “urged me to take partisan political considerations into account, which was clearly improper,“ she said.
And they continued to “hound” her from September to December after she made her decision not to offer SNC-Lavalin a deal and had made it known.
That pressure was “not illegal,“ she opined, but “raised serious red flags in my view”. — AFP