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Trudeau vs. Dion: How the PM and ethics commissioner differ on the SNC-Lavalin affair

The federal ethics commissioner released a damning report Wednesday about the SNC-Lavalin affair, finding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was guilty of violating Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act.

According to Mario Dion, the prime minister had “directly and through his senior officials used various means to exert influence” over then justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson‑Raybould. This influence, Dion said, was part of an effort to get her to overrule a decision by the director of public prosecutions to not grant a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec-based engineering firm, which is facing charges of fraud and corruption.

But Dion’s report also revealed the divide between the prime minister and the ethics commissioner. Here’s a breakdown of their differing views on whether the actions by Trudeau and some of his staff were appropriate. 

Inappropriate pressure?

What Trudeau said:

On Feb. 7,  the Globe and Mail broke the story that Trudeau’s office had tried to pressure Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the corruption and fraud prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.

Trudeau immediately reacted, saying the allegations in the newspaper were “false,” and insisted neither he nor any of his staff “directed” Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the case.

When Wilson-Raybould testified at a justice committee hearing that she faced intense political pressure from Trudeau and senior government officials, he denied the accusations, insisting he and his staff “always acted appropriately and professionally.”

What Dion said:

In his report, Dion found four significant attempts by Trudeau and staff to influence Wilson-Raybould, through tactics he found “troubling.”

First attempt

In a Sept. 17, 2018, meeting with Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau and then Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick, both Wernick and the prime minister spoke about the “need to find a solution” and the potential job losses at SNC-Lavalin. They also raised the issue of the upcoming provincial election in Quebec, and the fact Trudeau is MP for Papineau, a Quebec riding near SNC-Lavalin’s corporate headquarters.

Second attempt

On Oct. 19, 2018, SNC-Lavalin filed an application for a judicial review of the director of public prosecutions’ decision. Dion said at least two attempts were made by an official in the Privy Council Office and a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office to have Wilson-Raybould intervene in the judicial review.

Third attempt

The third attempt to “bend the will” of Wilson-Raybould came as the PMO pressed her to seek outside counsel, preferably Beverley McLachlin, the former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice. What Wilson-Raybould didn’t know was both SNC-Lavalin and a senior adviser in the PMO had already been in touch with McLachlin.

This meant, according to Dion, that PMO staff were asking Wilson-Raybould to seek external advice, “all the while knowing the advice that would be given, and selectively withholding other material information from” her.

Fourth attempt

Dion said the “final and most flagrant attempt” to influence Wilson-Raybould came during a phone call between herself and Wernick (a conversation recorded by Wilson-Raybould), Wernick was clearly making an appeal on behalf of Trudeau to have Wilson-Raybould reconsider her decision, Dion said. Wernick, Dion said, again stated a solution was needed to prevent the economic consequences that would follow if SNC-Lavalin did not get the remediation agreement.

The buck stops with the PM?

What Trudeau said:

Following the release of the report, Trudeau told reporters that while he disagrees with some of Dion’s findings, he takes responsibility “for the mistakes that I made” and the “buck stops with the prime minister.”

What Dion said:

According to Dion, Trudeau, in his testimony to the ethics commissioner, said he could not be held “vicariously liable for the actions of his senior advisers and other senior departmental officials.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., told reporters following the release of the report that he takes responsibility ‘for the mistakes that I made.’ (Andrej Ivanov/Reuters)

Trudeau, Dion said, cited a previous ethics commission report about former prime minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright. Wright had personally written a cheque to Senator Mike Duffy for $90,000 to repay the Senate for questionable living expense claims.

(Wright was found in violation of ethic rules, but Harper was not implicated).

But Dion said nothing in that report suggested Harper was involved in or even aware of Wright’s scheme.

“Here, in contrast, the evidence abundantly shows that Mr. Trudeau knowingly sought to influence Ms. Wilson-Raybould both directly and through the actions of his agents,” Dion wrote.

Economic interests

What Trudeau said:

The prime minister has always maintained the dealings with Wilson-Raybould were motivated to protect Canadian jobs. In the case of SNC-Lavalin, which employs nearly 9,000 people across the country, the concern has been that a successful criminal prosecution against the company could cost a slew of jobs and damage the economy, particularly in Quebec.

What Dion said:

Dion said it can’t be ignored that a remediation agreement would be in the private interests of SNC-Lavalin, As well, the larger public considerations are “inextricably linked” to SNC-Lavalin’s private interests, he wrote.

Dion said the prime minister has no business putting forward “any arguments involving public or private interests to the attorney general.”

Dion found the prime minister ‘directly and through his senior officials used various means to exert influence’ over then attorney general and justice minister Jody Wilson‑Raybould. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The remediation agreement is clear that only the prosecutor must weigh (or exclude) these interests, Dion said.

Political interests

What Trudeau said:

Trudeau has said that when he raised the point about him being an MP for Papineau, it wasn’t of a “partisan nature,” not stressing that it “is our job as parliamentarians to defend the interests of the communities we were elected to represent.” Indeed, when Wilson-Raybould asked Trudeau whether he was politically interfering in a criminal prosecution, Trudeau replied he was not and he was merely trying to find a solution, Dion wrote.

What Dion said:

The ethics commissioner said he believes Trudeau raised the issue of Papineau with Wilson-Raybould to underscore the fact that his electoral riding was situated in the same province as SNC-Lavalin’s headquarters.”

Dion said be believed the prime minister also wanted to stress her decision not to intervene could have larger political repercussions in Quebec, both for the federal and provincial orders of government.

But it is improper to use “political interests” to attempt to influence the attorney general in the context of an ongoing criminal prosecution, Dion wrote.