OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government might have acted differently had it known the criminal case against SNC-Lavalin would be resolved without crippling the company or throwing thousands of its employees out of work.
“Obviously, as we look back over the past year and this issue, there are things we could have, should have, would have done differently had we known, had we known all sorts of different aspects of it,” he said Wednesday in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press, just hours after the Montreal engineering giant pleaded guilty to one charge of fraud.
“But you don’t get do-overs in politics. You only do the best you can to protect jobs, to respect the independence of the judiciary and that’s exactly what we did every step of the way.”
Throughout the year-long saga that shook Trudeau’s government and likely contributed to the Liberals being reduced to a minority in the Oct. 21 election, the prime minister argued his only preoccupation was protecting the 9,000 innocent Canadian employees, as well as pensioners, shareholders and suppliers, who stood to be harmed if SNC was convicted on corruption charges related to contracts in Libya.
Under current federal policy, a criminal conviction could have barred SNC-Lavalin from federal contracts for 10 years.
In an internal SNC document obtained by The Canadian Press and presented to prosecutors in the fall of 2018, the company outlined a “Plan B” that would go into play if it did not get a remediation agreement. The plan involved splitting the company in two, moving its offices to the U.S. and chopping 5,200 Canadian jobs before eventually shutting down its Canadian operations entirely.
Yet after the company reached an agreement with the Crown prosecutor Wednesday, it issued a statement saying it “does not anticipate that the (guilty) plea will have any long-term material adverse impact on the company’s overall business.”
Under the agreement, its construction division pleaded guilty to a charge of fraud over $5,000, will pay a $280-million penalty and will be subject to a three-year probation order. The remaining charges were stayed.
Asked if he thinks SNC-Lavalin cried wolf about relocating in order to pressure the government into offering a remediation agreement, Trudeau said: “I think those are reflections that people will have to have and engage with the director of public prosecutions.”
Still, he welcomed Wednesday’s outcome.
“This process unfolded in an independent way and we got to an outcome that seems positive for everyone involved, particularly for the workers.”
Trudeau’s world was rocked by allegations that he, his senior staff, the top public servant and others had inappropriately pressured former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to stop the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. They wanted her to use her legal authority to override the director of public prosecutions, who had decided not to negotiate a remediation agreement — a form of plea bargain — with SNC.
The federal ethics watchdog concluded in August that Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act in the way he dealt with the issue.
Wilson-Raybould, who quit Trudeau’s cabinet and won re-election as an Independent, suggested in a series of tweets that Wednesday’s resolution of the case vindicates her refusal to politically interfere with the public prosecutor’s decision.
“I have long believed in the essential necessity of our judicial system operating as it should — based on the rule of law and prosecutorial independence, and without political interference or pressure,” she said.
Amid intense lobbying by SNC, the Trudeau government last year amended the Criminal Code to allow for remediation agreements, also known as deferred prosecution agreements, in corporate corruption cases.
Trudeau once again defended the concept Wednesday, arguing that just because it wasn’t used in the SNC case doesn’t mean it’s not a useful tool to have in the tool box.
“I think having tools that are ensuring that we are protecting people who work hard at their jobs from malfeasance or mistakes made at the executive level is going to be important,” he said. “We don’t want to punish workers for decisions that are made by people who might not have the interests of the workers at heart.”
The issue dates back to 2015, when SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and two of its affiliates, SNC-Lavalin Construction Inc. and SNC-Lavalin International Inc., were charged with corruption of a foreign public official and fraud stemming from business dealings in Libya.
SNC-Lavalin unsuccessfully pressed the director of prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement out of concern the company could be barred from federal contracts for a decade if convicted of criminal charges.
The government has been reworking its contract-prohibition policy and was supposed to issue a final revision last spring.
It has not materialized, but a draft revision in the fall of 2018 proposed doing away with a minimum 10-year ban and allowing the government flexibility in deciding how long to bar a company from bidding on federal contracts.
Trudeau said his understanding is that changes to the policy were “overtaken” by the introduction of remediation agreements as an option for dealing with corporate corruption cases. But he stressed he’s “not an expert” on the matter and he declined to say whether he thinks SNC-Lavalin should be barred from federal contracts for a period of time now that it’s been criminally convicted.
“There are very clear rules that I’m not going to opine on without having a fuller briefing on the implications of that,” he said.
Neither Public Services and Procurement Canada, nor the office of its minister, Anita Anand, responded to questions Wednesday about the status of the 10-year contract ban policy.
Kathleen Roussel, the director of public prosecutions, thanked her team Wednesday for its dedicated work on a challenging case “in the face of unprecedented public attention.”
David Lametti, who succeeded Wilson-Raybould as attorney general and justice minister, was not involved in the settlement negotiations, said Crown prosecutor Richard Roy.
In a statement, Lametti said Roussel advised him of the agreement Tuesday, as she is required to do by law in ongoing matters she deems to be of general interest.
“This decision was made independently by the (prosecution service), as part of their responsibility to continually assess and determine the appropriate path for cases under their jurisdiction,” he said.
“Canadians can have confidence that our judicial and legal systems are working as they should.”
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said Wednesday’s resolution shows the justice system “worked as it should once the Liberals got out of the way.”
“Justin Trudeau and his team were wrong to break the law and wrong to pretend that they were doing anything to protect the jobs of hard-working Canadians,” said Angus, referring to the Conflict of Interest Act.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 18, 2019.
Joan Bryden and Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press