The withering conclusion by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated conflict of interest law in the SNC-Lavalin affair will lead the country’s newscasts, but the lengthy report also digs deep into the scandal and gives a rare look at the inner workings of the highest level of government.
Here are six things buried in the report that shed new light on the SNC-Lavalin affair and the Trudeau government itself.
Trudeau says Wilson-Raybould saw any advice as ‘interference’
Although Liberals have mostly tried not to disparage former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould in public — except for a few anonymous sources, at least — some indications of fractious relationships are clear in the report.
Trudeau testified that Wilson-Raybould “tended to view any form of engagement or advice by the Prime Minister’s staff on decisions she had already made as ‘interference.’ ”
Trudeau’s submission to the ethics commissioner says that his relationship with Wilson-Raybould “had become challenging and tense.”
“Trudeau was concerned with the significant friction between Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister’s Office and the friction between her and her cabinet colleagues,” the report reads.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau also told the ethics commissioner’s office that he didn’t think Wilson-Raybould had done her “due diligence” on the economic effects of the decision not to strike a deal with SNC-Lavalin.
The ‘Plan B’ PowerPoint
Representatives from SNC-Lavalin and officials in the finance department teamed up on a PowerPoint presentation that the company planned to submit to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, arguing that a deferred prosecution was in the public interest.
According to the ethics report, that presentation also outlined the company’s “Plan B,” in the event of a prosecution. SNC-Lavalin would be broken up and two new companies would be created out of the parts. Three “possibly convicted” entities would form the first group, based in Canada and heading toward an “eventual wind-up.”
“The other group would be made up of parts of the SNC-Lavalin Group that had no role in the wrongful behaviour and would be reconstituted and headquartered in another jurisdiction,” the report reads.
In November, SNC-Lavalin ramped up its communications with government officials, with the company warning the prime minister’s office it “was close to escalating measures” to prepare for the “Plan B.”
The McLachlin option
Morneau testified that, during a discussion in mid-November in Beijing, Kevin Lynch, the chair of the SNC-Lavalin board of directors, brought up the idea of having former chief justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin act as a third-party expert. The pair happened to be attending the same conference in China at the time.
SNC-Lavalin also floated the idea of contracting McLachlin to preside over a “settlement conference” between the company and the prosecution services. Trudeau testified that he was never informed about this proposal.
The idea of McLachlin giving Wilson-Raybould expert advice gained steam in the government over the next month, with Butts urging the attorney general to speak to “someone like” McLachlin at the beginning of December.
The only problem? McLachlin herself wasn’t crazy about the idea and had expressed reservations.
“She was no longer a lawyer and could not offer legal advice. She would also require proper briefing,” the report reads. McLachlin would also need to be invited by the attorney general because she “did not want to be retained by the Government of Canada.”
No precedent for ‘external advice’
Wilson-Raybould was repeatedly urged to seek “external advice” on whether to intervene in the Public Prosecution Service of Canada decision not to defer the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. Deputy Justice Minister Nathalie Drouin even urged Wilson-Raybould to strike a panel of experts that could offer her recommendations.
Wilson-Raybould and her staff were concerned that sensitive information could be compromised by seeking third-party advice and asked Drouin to report back on whether it had even been done before.
Drouin returned with a memo stating that, to her knowledge, “an attorney general had never sought external advice on a prosecutorial decision.”
How the prime minister’s office works
The commissioner’s report also provides some rare insight into the workings of the prime minister’s office. In his interview with the ethics commissioner’s office, Trudeau testified that his advisers are authorized to interact with ministers on his behalf and “once they have a sense of Mr. Trudeau’s direction on a matter,” they are tasked with day-to-day management of the issue.
On an issue like the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau didn’t expect frequent updates and his staff were expected to deal with the file as they saw fit.
That fact became important as the commissioner decided whether or not there was a conflict: it was assumed by everyone involved that all of the advisers who put inappropriate pressure on Wilson-Raybould were doing so with the full force of the prime minister behind them.
All for SNC
Trudeau testified that he didn’t get up to speed on the idea of remediation agreements until early 2016, when it was brought up in a meeting with SNC-Lavalin’s CEO. After the meeting Trudeau asked his advisers to look into the idea, saying it would be “an unfortunate loss,” if the company’s employees were to lose their jobs.
It is clear, and even explicitly stated by some government officials, that remediation agreements were specifically introduced for SNC-Lavalin. Earlier in the year, Wilson-Raybould testified that she believed the legislative changes were made “primarily because of SNC-Lavalin.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019
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