Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould testified before the House of Commons justice committee for hours Wednesday, documenting in fine detail what she described as a well-orchestrated campaign by senior members of the Prime Minister’s Office to pressure her to reach an agreement with SNC-Lavalin to help the engineering firm avoid criminal prosecution.
Wilson-Raybould described what she considered an inappropriate attempt by political staffers, and even the most senior bureaucrat in the country, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, to pressure her to overrule the director of public prosecutions and negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with SNC-Lavalin so it could avoid a trial over allegations it used bribery to secure government contracts in Libya.
The former justice minister told the committee that she believes the sustained pressure was inappropriate and amounted to “political interference” but that it wasn’t illegal.
Here are some key moments from the former attorney general’s committee appearance:
1. ‘Sustained pressure’ and ‘veiled threats’
After Kathleen Roussel, the director of public prosecutions, decided in September 2018 that she would not make a deal and would proceed with a trial against SNC Lavalin, Wilson-Raybould said she reached a similar decision on the matter — and made it clear to all in government that she would not intervene in the PPSC process.
The former minister said despite that position, she still fielded 10 phone calls and sat for 10 in-person meetings with members of the PMO, including Mathieu Bouchard, Trudeau’s adviser on Quebec issues, and special adviser Elder Marques, among others.
Despite attempts to convince her to reconsider her stance given the possible economic consequences, Wilson-Raybould said she was undaunted in her position and that she should take no further action.
She also said she faced pressure from Ben Chin, Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s chief of staff, and Gerry Butts, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, to consider the consequences. Butts resigned last week while saying he acted ethically.
Wilson-Raybould said she was reminded by these staffers of the political consequences for both the provincial and federal Liberal parties if SNC-Lavalin folded or laid off workers.
“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 my role as the attorney general of Canada,” she said.
“Within these conversations, there were express statements regarding the necessity for interference in the SNC-Lavalin matter, the potential for consequences, and veiled threats if a DPA was not made available to SNC,” she said.
2. ‘I am an MP in Quebec’
When Wilson-Raybould raised her discomfort with the pressure she said she faced with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a September meeting, she said Trudeau told her he, too, was worried about SNC-Lavalin layoffs and the company’s continued viability if it were convicted of the criminal charges.
A conviction could bar the firm from bidding on federal contracts for up to 10 years, a key source of revenue for the company.
“At that point the PM jumped in stressing that there is an election in Quebec and that ‘I am an MP in Quebec — the member for Papineau.”
“I was quite taken aback,” Wilson-Raybould said.
“My response — and I remember this vividly — was to ask the PM a direct question while looking him in the eye — I asked: ‘Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the AG? I would strongly advise against it.’ The prime minister said, ‘No, No, No – we just need to find a solution,'” Wilson-Raybould said Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters after her testimony, Trudeau denied any wrongdoing and said his government was principally concerned about job losses, namely for the 9,400 Canadians who work for SNC-Lavalin, when there were discussions about the DPA.
He said he “completely disagrees” with her characterization of events.
3. ‘Partisan political considerations’
Wilson-Raybould said after she told the prime minister in September that she had made a decision on the matter, all lobbying efforts by his staff and others should have immediately stopped.
“Various officials urged me to take partisan political considerations into account — which it was clearly improper for me to do,” she said, citing talk from PMO staffers about the upcoming Quebec provincial election where the Quebec Liberal Party was facing a strong challenge from the Coalition Avenir Quebec, the right-of-centre party that ultimately prevailed.
“We either have a system that is based on the rule of law, the independence of the prosecutorial functions, and respect for those charged to use their discretion and powers in particular ways – or we do not,” she said.
Wilson-Raybould said she then met with Butts on Dec. 5, 2018, to discuss the “barrage of people hounding me and my staff.”
4. ‘Need to find a solution’
Wilson-Raybould said that Butts told her that, despite her misgivings, there needed to be some sort of “solution on the SNC stuff.”
Butts is then said to have told her that he didn’t like how the former Conservative government had created the Public Prosecution Service of Canada in the first place — a prosecutorial arm separate from other lawyers in the justice department.
After the meeting and amid her clear reluctance to “find a solution,” on Dec. 18, 2018, her chief of staff, Jessica Prince, was “urgently summoned” to meet with both Butts and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, to discuss a DPA.
In a text message exchange said to have been sent immediately after that meeting, Prince told Wilson-Raybould about the conversation.
“Gerry said ‘Jess, there is no solution here that doesn’t involve some interference,’ Wilson-Raybould said, reading the text message from Prince to the committee Wednesday.
“At least they are finally being honest about what they are asking you to do! Don’t care about the PPSC’s independence. Katie was like ‘we don’t want to debate legalities anymore.’ … They kept being like ‘we aren’t lawyers, but there has to be some solution here,'” Prince said in a text to Wilson-Raybould.
5. ‘Saturday Night Massacre’
Then, on a phone call with Wernick on Dec. 19, Wilson-Raybould said the clerk made it clear to her that the prime minister was “quite determined, quite firm” on the matter and that he wanted to know why the DPA route “isn’t being used.”
Wernick told her that Trudeau was “a bit worried.”
Wilson-Raybould said Wernick told her that Trudeau is “gonna find a way to get it done one way or another. So, he is in that kinda mood and I wanted you to be aware of that.”
The clerk said the prime minister was not asking her to do anything “outside of the box of what is legal or proper.”
Wilson-Raybould said she was quite sure she was making the right decision and that Wernick’s messages on the matter were “treading on dangerous ground here.”
“And I issued a stern warning because as the AG … I cannot act in a partisan way and I cannot be politically motivated. And all of this screams of that,” she said.
When Wernick told her that Trudeau understood it was Wilson-Raybould’s decision alone to make and she should be aware of what the prime minister wanted on this matter, the former minister said she had thought of the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Wilson-Raybould was referencing a series of events in 1973 when former U.S. president Richard Nixon, during the Watergate scandal, ordered justice department officials to fire the special prosecutor probing the matter.
The attorney general, and then the deputy attorney general, resigned when asked to take this action by the president.
Wilson-Raybould said she thought she, too, would have to resign instead of following through with a direct order from the prime minister to sign a DPA or else.
6. ‘I did not consider resigning’
Asked why she didn’t resign from her position as attorney general and justice minister during the time she said improper pressure was being applied, Wilson-Raybould said:
“I was, in my opinion, doing my job as the attorney general. I was protecting a fundamental constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence and the independence of our judiciary. That’s my job. That was my job, rather, as the attorney general.
“And as long as I was the attorney general I was going to ensure that the independence of the director of public prosecutions in the exercise of their discretion was not interfered with.”
7. ‘It is not illegal’
Wilson-Raybould said Wednesday that despite the pressure she felt, she did not believe what transpired was illegal. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has asked the RCMP to investigate the matter.
“In my opinion it’s not illegal. It is very inappropriate depending on the context of the comments made, the nature of the pressure, the specific issues that are raised. It is incredibly in appropriate and is an attempt to compromise, or to impose upon an independent attorney general,” she said in response to a question from NDP MP Nathan Cullen.