Jody Wilson-Raybould never complained about improper pressure to halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to move her out of her coveted cabinet role as justice minister and attorney general, the prime minister’s former principal secretary says.
Gerald Butts testified before the House of Commons justice committee Wednesday, offering a very different version of events from those described last week in explosive testimony from Wilson-Raybould. In doing so, he gave beleaguered Liberals what they’ve been praying for: some ammunition to fight accusations of political interference in the justice system that have cost Trudeau two cabinet ministers and his most trusted adviser in the past month.
Now that both sides of the story have been aired, Trudeau is to issue his own statement on the affair Thursday morning in a much more comprehensive fashion than he’s done before.
Butts repeatedly said he believes nobody from the Prime Minister’s Office did anything wrong and if Wilson-Raybould felt she’d been inappropriately pressured to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case, she had an obligation to let Trudeau know as it was happening.
“If this was wrong in the way that is alleged, why are we having this conversation now and not in September or October or November?” he said.
He said Wilson-Raybould didn’t raise any concerns about what was happening until the prime minister told her on Jan. 7 that he was shuffling her out of what she called her “dream job” as justice minister and attorney general.
Last week, Wilson-Raybould told the committee she was subjected last fall to relentless, inappropriate pressure — and even veiled threats about being removed as justice minister — to stop the trial of SNC-Lavalin on bribery and fraud charges related to contracts in Libya.
Wilson-Raybould testified that the pressure to interfere in the case came from Trudeau himself, Butts and other senior staff, the top federal public servant and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s staff — all of whom wanted her to order the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with the Montreal engineering giant.
Such an agreement would have forced the company to pay stiff penalties while avoiding a criminal conviction that could financially cripple it.
However, Butts said he and others in the Prime Minister’s Office only wanted Wilson-Raybould to seek independent legal advice on the matter, given the potential impact on the company’s 9,000 employees and the fact that remediation agreements are a new feature in Canadian law.
“When you boil it all down, all we ever asked the attorney general to consider was a second opinion,” Butts said in a long written statement accompanying his live testimony. “When 9,000 people’s jobs are at stake, it is a public-policy problem of the highest order. It was our obligation to exhaustively consider options the law allows.”
Butts, a longtime friend who resigned as Trudeau’s most trusted adviser last month, insisted that staff in the Prime Minister’s Office always respected the fact that, as attorney general, it was up to Wilson-Raybould alone to decide whether to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case.
Wilson-Raybould has said everyone should have backed off once she informed Trudeau on Sept. 17 that she’d made a final decision not to intervene. But Butts — backed up later by testimony from Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick and deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin — said that under the law the decision could not be considered final until a trial ended with a verdict and that Wilson-Raybould had an obligation to re-evaluate the matter as new information surfaced.
In one exchange with Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt, he suggested Wilson-Raybould, who testified she made her own final decision within 12 days of the director of public prosecutions’ decision not to seek a remediation agreement, didn’t take sufficient time to consider her options.
“We know what it’s like to see a company or a community collapse,” Butts told Raitt, who, like him, is from Cape Breton. “And can you imagine if when we were kids and the coal mines closed or the steel mill closed, the best explanation someone could give us was that someone thought about it for 12 days in Ottawa?”
In fact, Drouin later said Wilson-Raybould signalled she was not keen to intervene just two days after the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, sent her a note on Sept. 4 outlining her reasons for not pursuing a remediation agreement. Drouin said she was told on Sept. 11 that Wilson-Raybould would not intervene.
Drouin and her departmental officials drafted a memo laying out Wilson-Raybould’s legal options after Roussel’s decision. Drouin said the options included directing Roussel to reverse her decision, taking over the prosecution outright and seeking an external legal opinion. Wilson-Raybould testified last week that she had unspecified concerns with the options.
The department also drafted, at the request of the Privy Council Office, a report on the potential impacts of a criminal conviction on SNC-Lavalin. Drouin said she was ordered by Wilson-Raybould’s office not to give the report to the Privy Council Office.
Butts said he reviewed all the emails and texts he received from Wilson-Raybould going back to the summer of 2013.
“There is not a single mention of this file or anyone’s conduct on this file until during the cabinet shuffle,” he said.
The first he or Trudeau heard about it was when the prime minister told Wilson-Raybould’s close friend and fellow cabinet minister Jane Philpott he was moving Philpott from Indigenous Services to Treasury Board, filling a gap left by Scott Brison’s surprise retirement from politics, he said.
(Philpott ultimately resigned from cabinet last Monday, saying she’d lost confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin case. Her departure followed Wilson-Raybould’s resignation a month earlier.)
According to Butts, Trudeau told Philpott on Jan. 6 that he had decided to move Wilson-Raybould into the Indigenous Services slot because he wanted to “send a strong signal” that he remained personally committed to his reconciliation agenda. Philpott worried that Wilson-Raybould would view the move as a demotion and might wonder if it was “connected to the ‘DPA’ issue” — a reference to deferred-prosecution agreements, as remediation agreements are also known.
Wilson-Raybould refused the job, saying she had opposed the Indian Act her entire life and wouldn’t administer it. Butts said he advised Trudeau that he couldn’t set a precedent by allowing a minister to refuse a move. Wilson-Raybould was ultimately shuffled to Veterans Affairs on Jan. 14.
Wilson-Raybould characterized 20 meetings or phone calls with 11 different people over four months as relentless, “inappropriate” pressure to get her to change her mind on a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin. However, Butts said that’s nothing compared to at least 100 meetings or calls on the Trans Mountain pipeline purchase — a number that “would have been a week” when they were dealing with NAFTA.
“It did not seem to me then, and does not now, that what we did was anything other than what those 9,000 people would have every right to expect of their prime minister.”
Wernick and Drouin followed Butts, both appearing before the committee for a second time to answer additional questions that came up after Wilson-Raybould’s testimony last week.
Wernick said he still believes no unacceptable pressure was applied to Wilson-Raybould by him or anyone else. He denied Wilson-Raybould’s allegation that he made “veiled threats” that her job was in jeopardy if she didn’t agree to a remediation agreement.
Opposition MPs accused Wernick of being too partisan during his first appearance at committee and he prefaced his remarks by saying people have used social media to try to intimidate him as a witness. He got into several testy exchanges with opposition committee members, who have called for his resignation.
After Butts’s testimony, Liberal MPs seemed satisfied that there was no wrongdoing.
“What we heard clearly today is there was not any inappropriate pressure,” said Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault.
Liberals used their majority on the committee to reject an opposition proposal to recall Wilson-Raybould to respond to Butts’s comments. She issued a statement saying she’d be happy to return to the committee if invited.
Raitt said that “Canadians are going to be pretty ticked off” if Wilson-Raybould doesn’t get a chance to respond.
“There are stark contradictions and one of them isn’t telling the full story and we need to find out which one it is,” she said, adding that Wilson-Raybould seems “far more credible” to her than Butts.
Joan Bryden and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press