Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s report in the SNC-Lavalin affair (need to get caught up? read this) exploded on to the political scene yesterday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had been planning to announce some local infrastructure spending in Ontario’s Niagara region, instead faced a barrage of new questions about what he and his staff did to try to help construction giant SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal trial. Mr. Dion ruled that Mr. Trudeau had acted improperly in furthering the private interests of the Quebec construction company by repeatedly pressing his then-attorney-general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to intervene.
Here are five new things we’ve learned.
1. SNC-Lavalin’s lobbying began within weeks of Mr. Trudeau assuming office. Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal cabinet were sworn in in November of 2015. Soon after – “early 2016,” according to Mr. Dion’s report – Mr. Trudeau and a senior adviser, Mathieu Bouchard, met with the CEO of SNC-Lavalin and other senior members of the company. At that meeting SNC-Lavalin pitched the idea of remediation agreements for companies to avoid criminal prosecution. (The company was facing charges of fraud and bribery related to payments made to the late Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.) Other countries, including Britain, have such a law. The Liberals would pass legislation creating the deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) option in 2018.
2. Even more political and business players were involved. The report highlights the involvement of Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Scott Brison, who was then the president of the treasury board. Both ministers spoke to Bank of Montreal executives last fall about SNC-Lavalin’s drive to get a DPA. Those executives were also working for SNC-Lavalin. In January, Mr. Brison quit politics and in February he was given a senior job at the Bank of Montreal.
3. Even more former Supreme Court justices were involved. We already knew former justice Frank Iacobucci was involved, because he worked as legal counsel for SNC-Lavalin. According to Mr. Dion’s report, Mr. Iacobucci also got another former Supreme Court colleague, John Major, to write a legal opinion about whether the Director of Public Prosecutions’ actions in regards to not giving SNC-Lavalin a DPA were unlawful. As well, representatives of the company and members of the Prime Minister’s Office floated the idea of having former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin mediate the situation. Ms. McLachlin was approached, Mr. Dion’s report says, but appears to have been reticent to get involved in the matter.
4. Former attorney-general Anne McLellan raises issues with the government’s behaviour. As the SNC-Lavalin scandal unfolded this spring, Mr. Trudeau commissioned Ms. McLellan to offer some advice on how things were handled. Although Ms. McLellan advised against splitting the jobs of justice minister and attorney-general – one proposal that had been floated as a way to reduce political pressure on the A-G – Ms. McLellan did appear to be concerned about the level of involvement by political staff in the criminal case around SNC-Lavalin. “I do not think it is necessary or advisable for them [staff] to be present during these consultations, which will take place rarely,” Ms. McLellan wrote. In Mr. Dion’s report, he also cites discussions that took place in the PMO around what effect SNC-Lavalin’s trouble would have on the electoral prospects of the federal and Quebec Liberals. Speaking in general, Ms. McLellan did not seem to think these factors should be taken into consideration in cases like this. “Partisan concerns, such as the potential impact of a decision on the prosecution in question on the electoral future of the governing party, an individual MP, or the Attorney General, are not to be discussed," she wrote.
5. The RCMP are looking into it. “The RCMP is examining this matter carefully with all available information and will take appropriate actions as required," an RCMP spokesperson told the CBC.
Commentary from The Globe and Mail:
Lori Turnbull on the political damage: “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a chronic apologizer. He rightly apologized for several historic wrongdoings, including Canada’s colonial mistreatment of Inuit with tuberculosis. He has admitted to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation that ‘he’s made mistakes.’ So, why can’t he apologize for this?”
John Ibbitson on the election: “This is the second time this Prime Minister has been censured for violating the Conflict of Interest Act. But the all-expenses-paid family vacations on the private island of the Aga Khan, which earned the censure of the previous commissioner, Mary Dawson, is picayune compared with this offence.”
Konrad Yakabuski on the people around the Prime Minister: “From the very start, Mr. Trudeau was poorly served by his own advisers in the PMO and by former Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick. All of them should have known they were playing with fire by seeking to put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to reconsider her decision not to overturn the Director of Public Prosecutions’ refusal to grant SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement that would have spared the Quebec-based engineering giant from facing a trial on fraud and bribery charges.”
Andrew Willis on the Bank of Montreal connection: “Canada’s oldest bank may be a good corporate citizen for weighing in on proposed legislation. The bank may prove a savvy recruiter for landing a potential rainmaker in Mr. Brison. But when key executives emerge as central players in an ethical scandal that ropes in the Prime Minister and his cabinet, it’s not a good look. Bank of Montreal risks the reputational damage that comes with trying too hard to help a tarnished SNC-Lavalin.”
Robyn Urback on the CBC: "Trudeau knew that the Globe’s reporting couldn’t reasonably be called ‘false,’ even if perhaps he believed it somewhat skewed. But he lied and told Canadians it was wrong anyway. "
Andrew Coyne in the National Post: “We knew before now of the massive, all-government lobbying effort the company had mounted in support, first, of the addition of remediation as an alternative to prosecution for certain charges under the Criminal Code, and second, of its application in SNC-Lavalin’s case. We did not know quite how eager the government was to follow the company’s lead, or how closely the two conspired, even against their own attorney general.”
Paul Wells in Maclean’s: “The public prosecutor decides whether to prosecute. The attorney general decides whether to cancel such a decision. No AG in Canada has ever reversed a public prosecutor. So at the moment that [PMO staffers Mathieu] Bouchard and [Elder] Marques are assuring Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff that they’re not crossing lines, they’re huddling with the defendant in a scheduled criminal trial to figure out how to cancel the trial. That’s bold.”
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