Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by improperly pressuring former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, Canada’s ethics watchdog declared Wednesday – a bombshell report that leaves a substantial crater in the Liberal government’s road to re-election.
Mario Dion concluded that Trudeau’s attempts to influence Wilson-Raybould on the matter contravened section 9 of the act, which prohibits public office holders from using their position to try to influence a decision that would improperly further the private interests of a third party.
But Trudeau, who said he accepted both Dion’s report and full responsibility for what happened, stood his ground Wednesday on one particular matter: that he shouldn’t be having contact with his attorney general when the well-being of Canadians is at stake.
Dion found little doubt that SNC-Lavalin would have benefited had Trudeau succeeded in convincing Wilson-Raybould to overturn a decision by the director of public prosecutions, who had refused to invite the Montreal engineering giant to negotiate a remediation agreement in order to avoid a criminal prosecution on fraud charges related to contracts in Libya.
“The prime minister, directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms. Wilson-Raybould. The authority of the prime minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the director of public prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson-Raybould as the Crown’s chief law officer,” Dion wrote.
“Because SNC-Lavalin overwhelmingly stood to benefit from Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s intervention, I have no doubt that the result of Mr. Trudeau’s influence would have furthered SNC-Lavalin’s interests. The actions that sought to further these interests were improper since the actions were contrary to the constitutional principles of prosecutorial independence and the rule of law.”
Trudeau, who has long insisted he had the economic interests of the country at heart, stopped well short of offering Wilson-Raybould an apology.
“What happened over the past year shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “We need to make sure that my government or any government going forward isn’t in that position again.”
But he added: “Taking responsibility means recognizing that what we did over the last year wasn’t good enough, but I can’t apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs because that’s part of what Canadians expect me to do.”
Dion said Trudeau also improperly pushed Wilson-Raybould to consider partisan political interests in the matter, concluding that the prime minister and his staff “viewed the matter chiefly through a political lens to manage a legal issue” – despite Trudeau’s protestations to the contrary.
According to Dion, who interviewed Trudeau and received a written submission from him, the prime minister’s legal counsel argued that he was concerned solely about the public interest, not with the potential political fallout or SNC’s financial situation.
“His concern was, at all times, with the public interest, with the potential impact of a conviction on SNC-Lavalin on its employees, pensioners and suppliers, and that those interests be properly taken into account in prosecutorial decisions,” the report says.
Trudeau acknowledged having mentioned to Wilson-Raybould during one discussion on the matter last September in the midst of a Quebec provincial election, that he was an MP from a Montreal riding. But Dion said he maintained “this was an attempt to convey to the Attorney General that real people and real communities would be affected by her decision.”
Wilson-Raybould quit Trudeau’s cabinet in February over the affair; friend and cabinet ally Jane Philpott resigned soon after.
Trudeau subsequently kicked both women out of the Liberal caucus; they are running for re-election as independent candidates.
Later Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould released a statement welcoming the Ethics Commissioner’s findings and thanking Dion for his “thorough report”
“It represents a vindication of the independent role of the Attorney General and of the Director of Public Prosecutions in criminal prosecutions – and reinforces for Canadians how essential it is to our democracy to uphold the rule of law and prosecutorial independence,” she said.
She also added that she was “concerned” by the government’s decisions to deny the Ethics Commissioner access to some information “as there were apparently constraints on a number of witnesses from telling the whole story.”
Read her full statement below:
Philpott is yet to respond and said she would only do so after reading the entirety of the report.
Trudeau’s political rivals, all of whom are jockeying for position with the start of an election campaign now just weeks away, wasted little time in seizing on what appeared to be a golden opportunity.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Trudeau is “the only PM in history to be found guilty of breaking federal ethics law not once, but twice.”
Previous ethics commissioner Mary Dawson ruled that Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by accepting an all-expense paid family vacation in 2016 at the private Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims.
“His first violation … was shocking. This one is unforgivable,” Scheer said at a news conference in Regina, adding that Dion has unearthed enough evidence to warrant an RCMP investigation.
“What we have now is a true picture of who Justin Trudeau is … Time and time again, he has used the power of his office to enrich himself, reward his friends and punish his critics.”
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus described the report as a “political bombshell.”
“The prime minister’s fundamental job to Canadians is to assure them that the rule of law will be respected,” Angus said. “I can’t think of a precedent of this happening before. The prime minister has been found guilty of a very, very serious interference in the legal processes of Canada.”
Dion also made a point of noting that due to the confidentiality obligations that govern cabinet documents and discussions – obligations that were partially waived by the Prime Minister’s Office at the height of the scandal, to allow Wilson-Raybould to testify – he wasn’t able to access all the necessary materials.
“The decision made by the Privy Council Office to deny our office access to a full range of cabinet confidences meant nine witnesses were constrained in providing our office with the full body of evidence potentially relevant to the examination,” he wrote.
“I believe that decisions relating to my access to such information should be made transparently and democratically by Parliament, not by the very same public office holders who are subject to the regime I administer.”
Dion absolved senior PMO staffers, bureaucrats and others who allegedly pressured Wilson-Raybould of any wrongdoing. He said they all “acted in accordance with the general direction set by Mr. Trudeau” and that the prime minister was “the only public office holder who, by virtue of his position, could clearly exert influence over Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
Trudeau’s office simultaneously released Wednesday a report by former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan, who served as justice minister and attorney general in the Chretien government. Trudeau had asked her to analyse questions raised by the SNC controversy – including whether the role of justice minister, who is involved in political and policy decisions of government, should be separated from that of the attorney general, who is supposed to exercise independent, non-partisan judgment about prosecutions.
McLellan concluded that no structural change is required. But she recommended that a detailed protocol be developed to govern how ministers, staffers and bureaucrats consult with an attorney general about specific prosecutions.
“It is clear to me that there is no system for managing prosecutorial decisions that absolutely protects against the possibility of partisan interference, while providing for public accountability,” she wrote.