OTTAWA — The House of Commons justice committee will hold an emergency meeting next week in the wake of multiple calls for an investigation into allegations that former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould was pressured by the Prime Minister’s Office to help construction giant SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution.
Conservatives and the NDP want Wilson-Raybould and other officials, including senior staff in the PMO, to testify about allegations of political interference. But the Liberal-dominated committee must still vote for a motion to have the officials appear, and even if it does, it’s still unclear that Wilson-Raybould would speak about the case.
A justice committee examination is one of several avenues of investigation being called for in the wake of a Globe and Mail report on Thursday containing allegations from unnamed sources that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office pushed Wilson-Raybould to negotiate a deal with SNC-Lavalin that would have led to a fine instead of a criminal trial.
The company was charged in 2015 with bribing Libyan officials between 2001 and 2011 in exchange for construction contracts. The Post has not independently confirmed the allegations of political interference.
The move comes as The Canadian Press reports that Wilson-Raybould was involved in extensive, internal government discussions last fall about whether SNC-Lavalin should be allowed to avoid criminal prosecution. But government officials said there was nothing wrong with that.
They argued the discussions were all perfectly within the law and the government would have been remiss not to deliberate over the fate of the Quebec engineering and construction giant given that a prosecution could bankrupt the company and put thousands of Canadians out of work.
On Friday morning, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that if the prime minister has “nothing to hide,” he should have no problem with the committee hearings. “If his MPs vote against a motion and try to cover up what happened, Canadians can only conclude that the reports of political interference are true,” Scheer said.
NDP MP Murray Rankin, co-chair of the justice committee, said the committee chair sent out a notice that a meeting would be held by next Wednesday. A committee study is necessary to “clear the air” around the allegations, he said. “Given past Liberal scandals… I think it’s legitimate for us as Canadians to get answers to this,” Rankin said in an interview, referring to the sponsorship scandal that played a role in the Liberals’ electoral defeat in 2006.
However, Rankin was not optimistic that Wilson-Raybould would answer questions about the case, even if the committee votes in favour of a study, as she was shuffled out of the justice portfolio and named minister of veterans affairs last month, a move widely seen as a demotion. “No minister of the Crown can be compelled to answer for things that happened in their former role,” he said.
Wilson-Raybould has refused to confirm or deny any of the allegations in the report, despite repeated demands from the opposition in the House of Commons on Thursday for her to answer questions.
On Friday, she released a short statement saying she was “bound by solicitor-client privilege in this matter,” though some lawyers were quick to argue that the prime minister could easily waive that privilege if he wanted Wilson-Raybould to speak openly.
Meanwhile, the NDP is also calling for the ethics commissioner to investigate the allegations, as is Ottawa-based ethics watchdog Democracy Watch.
NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Nathan Cullen on Friday wrote to ethics commissioner Mario Dion, suggesting the allegations could represent a breach of a provision of the Conflict of Interest Act that prohibits public office holders from giving “preferential treatment to any person or organization.”
“If the prime minister truly believes there is no wrongdoing here, he should invite the ethics commissioner to investigate his office’s dealings with SNC-Lavalin and whether or not that was a factor in the removal of Ms. Wilson-Raybould from her position as attorney general,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement.
Democracy Watch suggested other possible violations of the act, including a provision stating that elected officials must not use their positions to improperly influence decisions.
There have also been suggestions that a criminal investigation might be in order, including from Michael Bryant, Ontario’s former attorney general and now executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Bryant told CTV’s Power Play on Thursday that he “would’ve called 911” if something similar had occurred while he was attorney general.
On Friday, the RCMP said in a statement that the police force was “aware of this matter but will not further comment at this point.”
During question period in the House of Commons on Friday, the opposition homed in on a December meeting between Wilson-Raybould and Gerald Butts, principal secretary to the prime minister, which the PMO has confirmed. A spokesperson for the PMO said in a statement that Wilson-Raybould raised the SNC-Lavalin case with Butts, and he told her to speak with Michael Wernick, the clerk of the privy council.
In response, Arif Virani, parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, repeated over and over the same line that has been the Liberals’ only response on the matter: “At no point has the current minister of justice or the former minister of justice been directed or pressured by the prime minister or the prime minister’s office to make any decision on this or any other matter.”