OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, wants to give his side of the story in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Butts wrote the House of Commons justice committee Thursday, requesting he be called as a witness.
His request came one day after former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould testified that she faced relentless pressure — and even veiled threats — from Trudeau, senior prime-ministerial aides, Canada’s top public servant and the finance minister’s office to interfere in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. Butts was among those she accused of inappropriate pressure tactics.
The Liberal-dominated committee announced later that it will invite Butts to appear next Wednesday or soon thereafter and will also recall Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council, and Nathalie Drouin, the deputy minister of justice, both of whom testified last week before Wilson-Raybould levelled specific accusations involving them.
Butts said he believes he has evidence that will help the committee get to the bottom of the affair. He added that he will need a short time to receive legal advice and compile relevant documents before testifying.
Trudeau’s longtime friend and most trusted adviser resigned as his principal secretary last week amid the mushrooming controversy over the government’s attempts to help SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal trial on charges of bribery and corruption related to its bid to secure contracts in Libya.
In a statement announcing his resignation, Butts categorically denied that he or anyone else in Trudeau’s office pressured Wilson-Raybould. He said he was quitting to avoid distracting from the government’s agenda and suggested he wanted to be free to defend himself.
“My reputation is my responsibility and that is for me to defend,” he said in the statement.
On Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould specifically accused Butts and Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, of pushing for an external legal opinion on the option of negotiating a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin — a kind of plea bargain that would force the company to pay restitution but avoid the potentially crippling impact of a criminal conviction. In a Dec. 18 meeting, Wilson-Raybould said Butts told her chief of staff, Jessica Prince, that there was “no solution here that does not involve some interference.”
“We believe that it is important that Mr. Butts respond to the account of the meeting of (Dec.) 18th provided by Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould, in addition to the other allegations about him and PMO colleagues mentioned in her testimony,” the committee said in a statement Thursday.
Wilson-Raybould saved her harshest criticism for Wernick, the country’s top civil servant, whom she accused of issuing “veiled threats” during a Dec. 19 conversation that led her to believe she would lose her job as justice minister and attorney general if she did not agree to the prime minister’s desire for a remediation agreement to be negotiated with SNC-Lavalin.
Trudeau shuffled Wilson-Raybould to the veterans-affairs post in mid-January. She resigned from cabinet altogether a month later.
Last week, Wernick asserted that the prime minister’s staff conducted themselves to “the highest standards of integrity” and neither they nor he applied improper pressure on her. He predicted, however, that Wilson-Raybould would complain about the Dec. 19 conversation.
“I can tell you, with complete assurance, that my view of those conversations is that they were within the boundaries of what’s lawful and appropriate,” he told the committee. “She may have another view of the conversation but that’s something the ethics commissioner could sort out.”
Ethics commissioner Mario Dion initiated an investigation into the matter two weeks ago. And on Thursday, Trudeau argued that Dion is best placed to decide who is telling the truth about the SNC-Lavalin affair — the prime minister or his former justice minister.
“Canadians need to know that we have an officer of Parliament who is tasked with a specific role to make sure that in questions where there are disagreements amongst politicians, amongst elected officials, there is an arbiter who is empowered to be like a judge, who is an officer of Parliament, who will make a determination in this issue,” Trudeau said after an event in Montreal, reiterating that he totally disagrees with Wilson-Raybould’s characterization of events.
But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer maintained it’s time for the RCMP to investigate possible obstruction of justice by the prime minister. Scheer wrote RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki on Thursday, calling for an investigation. He also reiterated his call for Trudeau to resign. The Conservatives demanded an “emergency” debate on the matter, which took place Thursday night.
The NDP and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called for an independent public inquiry into the affair and demanded that Trudeau fire Wernick.
Over nearly four hours of explosive testimony Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould told the committee there were 10 meetings and 10 phone calls involving 11 people between September and December 2018, all aimed at getting her to “politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada.”
In Toronto on Thursday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau denied that his chief of staff, Ben Chin, did anything inappropriate in discussing the SNC-Lavalin case with Wilson-Raybould’s staff.
“My staff, of course, is going to be constantly in communication with other teams across the government, always talking about the importance of the economy, always talking about the importance of jobs and that is their appropriate role,” Morneau said. ”I think that Ben was acting entirely appropriately in that capacity.”
Morneau did not directly address Wilson-Raybould’s assertion that Chin pressured her staff to take into consideration the political impact on last fall’s Quebec election if SNC-Lavalin were to move its operations out of the country. He did say that he did not direct Chin to do that.
Morneau emphasized that the company employs 9,000 people across the country and thousands of pensioners depend on its continued operation. It was appropriate to take that into consideration, while respecting the rule of law, he said.
In a speech to the Empire Club of Canada, also in Toronto, Justice Minister David Lametti said Wilson-Raybould’s testimony was an extraordinary symbol of transparency in the government. He also said it’s useful for the attorney general to sit at the cabinet table — unlike in some other jurisdictions, where the attorney general and justice minister are distinct.
Liberals, meanwhile, seemed split as to whether Wilson-Raybould can remain in the Liberal fold after pointedly refusing Wednesday to say she has confidence in the leader. Trudeau said he is still mulling over whether she will be allowed to remain in caucus or run for the party in this fall’s federal election.
In a CBC radio interview, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said caucus is a “broad church” that accommodates diverse views. Still, she said internal debate should take place behind closed doors and ”at the end of the day, when you leave the room, you have to play as a united team.”
Other ministers left it up to Trudeau to decide Wilson-Raybould’s fate.
However, one Liberal backbencher, British Columbia MP Jati Sidhu, told Abbotsford News that Wilson-Raybould is not a team player, that her father (himself a prominent Indigenous leader) might be “pulling the strings” and that her behaviour suggests she “couldn’t handle the stress.” Those remarks were denounced by Conservatives in the Commons as “misogynist.” Sidhu later apologized.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press