Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appear as a witness before the justice committee probing the SNC-Lavalin affair.
A motion from the Conservatives says Trudeau should be called to answer questions given his “alleged direct involvement in a sustained effort to influence SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution.” It calls on the prime minister to appear at a two-hour televised committee under oath.
During a news conference on Parliament Hill Monday, Scheer said there has been an unprecedented attempt to alter the course of justice through political interference.
“Politicians don’t get to execute our justice system,” he said.
“What we’ve seen unfold over the last two weeks is a textbook case of government corruption, with those at the very top of the Prime Minister’s Office implicated in what could be the obstruction of justice.”
Scheer said Trudeau presided over an unsolicited, co-ordinated and sustained effort to have the former attorney general override a decision by the Public Prosecution Service to proceed with criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec-based global engineering and construction company.
“Canadians need to be outraged at the suggestion that politicians were putting pressure on independent agents of the Crown, independent legal officers, to try to get a better deal for well-connected friends of the Liberal Party,” he said. “That is unacceptable.”
MPs are debating the Conservative motion in the House of Commons, but it’s unlikely to pass with a Liberal majority.
It is rare that a prime minister appears before a committee.
On Sept. 7, 2006, then-prime minister Stephen Harper appeared before a special committee on Senate reform.
Later today, the justice committee will hear from a number of legal experts.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, whose resignation from Trudeau’s cabinet on Feb. 12 after a Feb. 7 story in the Globe and Mail touched off the scandal, is expected to testify this week, but an exact time has not yet been confirmed.
Last week, Canada’s top civil servant Michael Wernick told the justice committee that he warned Wilson-Raybould that there would be economic “consequences” from prosecuting SNC-Lavalin, including big job losses. But he maintained that he, Trudeau and officials in the Prime Minister’s Office did not impose any inappropriate pressure on the minister.
Trudeau said Friday that Wernick is an “extraordinary public servant” who has served Canada with “integrity and brilliance.”
“I would recommend that people pay close heed to the words of the clerk of the Privy Council. His service to this country over decades in the public service leaves him well-positioned to understand what institutions are grounded in, and make sure that we’re doing the right things as a government.”
Legal experts were expected to explain remediation agreements when they appear at committee today.
In September 2018, the government amended the Criminal Code to allow for such agreements, enabling prosecutors to use them as an alternative to a criminal trial “at their discretion to address specified economic crimes if they consider it to be in the public interest and appropriate in the circumstances,” according to the Department of Justice website.
If the accused organization upholds the terms and conditions of the agreement, charges could be stayed and a criminal prosecution would be avoided.
According to the government website, the purpose is to denounce wrongdoing and hold the organization to account, while reducing harm to innocent employees, shareholders and other third parties. The organization would have to accept responsibility for the wrongdoing and pay a financial penalty.
In the case of SNC-Lavalin, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada opted not to pursue a remediation agreement and instead to proceed with prosecution. It advised the company of that decision on Sept. 4, 2018.
Wilson-Raybould, as attorney general at the time, had authority to override the decision and halt prosecution. Wernick confirmed last week several meetings were subsequently held, including a telephone call on Dec. 19 he initiated, where Wilson-Raybould was warned of the economic consequences for prosecuting the company that has about 9,000 employees.
He insisted there was never “inappropriate” interference.
According to the so-called Shawcross doctrine, the attorney general must consider the impact of prosecution on the public interest. The attorney general can consult with cabinet colleagues, but those discussions are limited to hearing advice, not receiving directions.
The Feb. 7 Globe and Mail report said officials pressed Wilson-Raybould to stop prosecution against SNC-Lavalin on fraud and corruption charges related to business dealings in Libya.
The committee is expected to hear expert opinions on what constitutes appropriate advice and what constitutes undue, or inappropriate pressure or direction.
Debating in favour of calling Trudeau to speak to the committee, Conservative justice critic and deputy leader Lisa Raitt said it is in the public interest to have the prime minister testify in order to put together the threads of information.
Raitt also raised the question of why SNC-Lavalin was told of the prosecutor’s decision on Sept. 4, yet the company did not disclose that information to its shareholders until Oct. 10.
“Who in the Prime Minister’s Office, what cabinet minister, or even did the prime minister give assurances to SNC-Lavalin that they would not have to disclose a material fact to their shareholders because they were going to sort it all out?” she asked.
Witnesses scheduled to appear at the justice committee beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET:
- Mary G. Condon, interim dean of Osgoode Hall Law School.
- Maxime St-Hilaire, associate professor, Faculty of Law, Université de Sherbrooke.
- Wendy Berman, lawyer and partner, Cassels Brock and Blackwell.
- Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, senior associate counsel at Woodward and Company LLP, and professor Peter Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia.
- Kenneth Jull, lawyer and academic, Gardiner Roberts LLP.