Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s former justice minister and attorney general, broke her silence on the SNC-Lavalin scandal in extraordinary fashion Wednesday, accusing the country’s prime minister, finance minister and their aides of applying inappropriate pressure on her to help the Quebec engineering giant avoid a criminal trial.
Wilson-Raybould’s explosive testimony Feb. 27 in front of a standing-room only House of Commons justice committee represented her first extensive public remarks since allegations were published three weeks ago in The Globe and Mail that she had faced undue pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office in the matter.
SNC-Lavalin has been lobbying the government and opposition parties to push for a plea bargain type of arrangement to deal with charges of fraud and corruption relating to its operations in Libya. If convicted the company could be shut out of bidding on federal contracts for a decade.
The firm has warned that such a ban could result in massive job losses, or even a foreign takeover of the company, which is headquartered in Montreal and employs almost 9,000 people nationwide, and 52,000 people around the world in multiple sectors including oil and gas, infrastructure, clean energy and mining. The impact on jobs was a clear concern for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould said.
"Where my alarm bells went off was when the clerk of the privy council talked about the fact that there was a board meeting" for SNC Lavalin in the fall, and an election in Quebec. Trudeau then "interjected" to say he was an MP from Quebec, she said. She called that inappropriate— Carl Meyer (@ottawacarl) February 27, 2019
In front of a stunned audience and a swarm of press, Wilson-Raybould told the committee that government officials had engaged with her repeatedly throughout the fall of 2018 over the issue, continuing to press her months after she says she made it clear that she had made up her mind to back the director of public prosecutions.
"I was having thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre," she said at one point, referring to the moment in 1973 when the attorney general for former U.S. president Richard Nixon resigned after he had refused to carry out the president's order to fire a special prosecutor looking into the Watergate burglary.
Members of the justice committee were shocked by Wilson-Raybould's testimony. Many took the time to say that they believed her, and commended her courage for appearing Wednesday and speaking out.
Trudeau yet to review testimony, 'strongly disagrees'
The committee hearing resulted in a strange back-and-forth between Liberal MPs who appeared at times to take an adversarial tone with their colleague, Wilson-Raybould.
At one point, Conservatives on the committee offered to give some of their own time back to Liberals to allow for deeper exchanges as Liberals asked Wilson-Raybould why she hadn’t resigned earlier.
Shortly after her testimony, Trudeau took questions from reporters at a Wednesday evening event in Montreal saying that he disagreed with Wilson-Raybould’s characterization of events, insisting that he and other members of the government acted appropriately to protect Canadian jobs, pensions and the economy.
“As we govern and make decisions for the good of all Canadians, we will always act within the bounds of what is appropriate...there is an officer in Parliament whose entire function is to look into questions of this nature," he said, referring to the ethics commissioner.
"So I welcome the investigation by the ethics commissioner to clear the air on this matter, and it’s important that we trust him to do his job. While this process continues, my steadfast focus will remain on Canadians and on governing in the best interests of people across this country.”
Although he said he disagreed with her testimony, Trudeau later added that he hadn’t heard all of it and would need to review it in detail before deciding whether he'd back Wilson-Raybould running again as a Liberal in the upcoming federal election scheduled for October.
Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer called on Trudeau to resign.
The prime minister "simply cannot continue to govern this country now that Canadians know what he has done," he said in remarks after the committee meeting.
“I listened carefully to the testimony of the former attorney general, and like Canadians, I was sickened and appalled by her story of inappropriate, and frankly illegal pressure brought to bear on her by the highest officials of Justin Trudeau’s government."
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who secured a seat in the Burnaby South by-election this week, said the testimony supported the NDP call for an inquiry and that “maybe (Trudeau) might need to” resign.
Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet said he wasn’t satisfied with Wilson-Raybould’s testimony. “She refused to answer the real question: Why did she refuse a deferred prosecution agreement? She, and she alone had the power to intervene."
A spokesman for Finance Minister Bill Morneau said it is his responsibility to protect and promote the creation of jobs across Canada and that he would continue to raise such important issues with all his cabinet colleagues.
"At no time did Minister Morneau nor members of his office pressure the former minister of justice and attorney general into making any decision regarding the prosecution of SNC Lavalin," spokesman Pierre-Olivier Herbert said in an email.
'Veiled threats' and 'red flags'
According to her testimony, Wilson-Raybould said pressure on her became "inappropriate" following a meeting with the chief of the privy council and the prime minister where discussions turned to elections and Trudeau "interjected" to note that his seat in federal parliament was in Montreal, the company's headquarters.
During an Oct. 26 meeting, Wilson-Raybould said PMO official Mathieu Bouchard told her chief of staff, "we can have the best policy in the world, but we need to get re-elected."
Wilson-Raybould also confirmed that she had told Trudeau before this, during a Sept. 17 meeting, "are you politically interfering with my role as attorney general? I would strongly advise against it."
"No no no, we just need to find a solution," she said Trudeau responded.
She also said that she believed that some of the earlier conversations she had with officials were appropriate.
But she also noted that the clerk of the privy council, Michael Wernick, Canada's top public servant, crossed a line when he repeatedly invoked the prime minister's name.
"Where they became very clearly inappropriate was when political issues came up, like the election in Quebec, like losing the election if SNC were to move its headquarters. conversations like that," she said.
"In my mind those were veiled threats, and I took them as such and that was entirely inappropriate.”
She describes a remarkable conversation with the government's top civil servant, who she says told her Trudeau wanted to "find a way to get it done, one way or another" and that he wanted her to "be aware of it." She retorted that they were "treading on dangerous ground."— Carl Meyer (@ottawacarl) February 27, 2019
One of Trudeau's top aides, principal secretary Gerald Butts, has since resigned over the controversy, confirming that he spoke to Wilson-Raybould about the issue, but denying that he said or did anything inappropriate.
In her testimony Wilson-Raybould said Trudeau had asked her, during their September meeting, to “help out” in the legal case involving SNC-Lavalin, noting that if they didn't defer criminal prosecution, “many jobs would be lost.”
The former attorney general also spoke about several other interactions with Ben Chin, chief of staff to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, as well as Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff and PMO official Elder Marques.
She said she repeatedly warned that pressure in this matter was inappropriate. Despite these warnings, Wilson-Raybould said she continued to face "extraordinary pressure."
Wernick told Wilson-Raybould in a Dec. 19 phone call that she was on a “collision course” with the prime minister, she said.
In January, she was removed from her role as justice minister, one she had held since 2015, in a cabinet shuffle to be appointed as veterans affairs minister.
On Jan. 7, Wilson-Raybould said Trudeau told her she was being shuffled for reasons she was not at liberty to disclose. She said she asked whether she was being shuffled because of her stance on SNC-Lavalin.
She did not disclose how Trudeau responded, but added that Butts had asked her whether she was questioning the prime minister's integrity, to which she said she did not reply.
Wilson-Raybould was subsequently demoted to veterans affairs on Jan. 14.
Since the controversy has exploded, Trudeau's cabinet has provided a waiver that allowed her to speak Wednesday about these matters and her role in cabinet.
The waiver, however, only releases her until Jan. 14. She is still restricted from speaking about confidential cabinet discussions which took place after that date.
On Wednesday, NDP MP Murray Rankin tried to get the committee to pass a motion asking the prime minister to extend the waiver through mid-January so she could tell more of her story, but the motion was voted down by the Liberal-dominated committee.
Wilson-Raybould announced her resignation from cabinet on Feb. 12. She remains a Liberal MP. Outside the committee room after her testimony, she told media she expected that she'd remain in caucus.
'I am very shaken by what I've heard here today'
"I am very shaken by what I've heard here today," NDP MP Murray Rankin said. There was no other conclusion one can "reasonably draw" from her testimony, he added, other than that there was, in fact, a sustained effort to politically interfere in prosecutorial independence.
Rankin noted the clear contradiction Wilson-Raybould has exposed: that the prime minister had said this month that if she had had concerns, she failed in her "responsibility" to "come forward" to "highlight" them. She described several times when she did, in fact, warn about interference.
"I have serious concerns about how things are reported," she said. "I have concerns about what people generally call smear campaigns."
Rankin notes the clear contradiction Wilson-Raybould has exposed: the PM said this month that if she had had concerns, she failed in her "responsibility" to "come forward" to "highlight" them. She has described today several times when she did, in fact, warn about interference— Carl Meyer (@ottawacarl) February 27, 2019
Liberal MPs on the committee repeatedly asked Wilson-Raybould why she did not resign in the fall, after she felt she had been exposed to undue influence. Wilson-Raybould responded that she felt she was doing her job, standing up for the independence of the director of public prosecutions and the rule of law.
Jennifer O'Connell, parliamentary secretary to Minister Morneau, pressed Wilson-Raybould on why she didn't communicate her concerns earlier. "I absolutely communicated," she retorted, to Trudeau, Wernick, PMO officials, deputy ministers, and others.
The former justice minister suggested to the committee that it study whether the roles of the minister of justice and attorney general should be separated.
"Our country would benefit from a detailed study and consideration around having the attorney general not sit around the cabinet table," she said.
She also emphasized that "I do not want Canadians or this committee to think that the integrity of our institutions has somehow evaporated."
Multiple Liberal MPs also asked her whether she still had confidence in the prime minister.
She said in response that she had resigned from her ministerial position because she didn't have confidence to sit around the cabinet table.
This story has been updated several times, most recently at 11:03 p.m. Eastern Time on Feb. 27, 2019 to include additional details from Wilson-Raybould's testimony as well as reaction from politicians, including the prime minister, finance minister and opposition leaders. It was updated again at 12:05 a.m. PT on Feb. 28, to correct that Wilson-Raybould said that Mathieu Bouchard made comments about the need to win the next election not to her, but rather to her chief of staff.