Former Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould at the Justice Committee: Where do we go From Here?
JWR at House of Commons Justice Committee
Perhaps the best way to approach the former minister’s testimony yesterday is to start at the beginning of her prepared statement where she states there was “consistent and sustained efforts by many people within government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the Attorney General for Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) for SNC Lavalin.”
In her lengthy appearance before this committee, sitting alone at the end of the table in the hearing room, she recounted in the four months from September, when the decision was made not to offer a deferred prosecution agreement, to December, 2018, there were ten phone calls and ten meetings and eleven people from the highest reaches of the Trudeau government attempting to persuade her to change her mind and offer a DPA to SNC Lavalin.
The original decision not to offer a DPA was made by the Director of Public Prosecutions on September 4 and by September 16, after carrying out her own due diligence, JWR decided that this was the way to go and determined not to intervene in this matter.
That’s when the calls and the meetings started, initiated by those who wanted to see a change in the DPP’s decision, in other words, offer a DPA to SNC Lavalin. Surprisingly the first contact came from Finance Minister Morneau’s Chief of Staff meeting with JWR’s Chief of Staff, notifying her that without a DPA, SNC Lavalin will leave Montreal.
Following this meeting there were nine other meetings and ten phone calls all with the same intent, adding pressure to offer a DPA but perhaps only four or five of them are the most important and most revealing as to the government’s strategy in this matter.
On September 17, the first of these meetings occurred involving Prime Minister Trudeau and the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick. It was at this meeting, which Trudeau referred to earlier in this saga, where the election in Quebec was raised as a factor to be considered as well as Trudeau saying that he was an MP from Quebec. In her testimony, JWR said the Clerk spoke of the need for a DPA. The possible move of SNC Lavalin to London was mentioned. But the key here is that JWR asked Trudeau “are you politically interfering with my role?” His answer was “no, no we just need to find a solution.” The solution sought was a DPA, but JWR had already made a decision on this and her view was that once the decision was made, interference must stop. She was not going to change her mind.
Between this meeting and meetings and phone calls in December, there was a suggestion from PMO staff that JWR consider retaining outside counsel on this matter to conduct an external review of the decision not to offer a DPA.
On December 5, JWR met with Gerry Butts, then principle secretary to the prime minister at the Chateau Laurier on a number of matters, but on SNC Lavalin according to JWR, Butts said there was a need to find a solution.
Then in this line of important meetings on December 18, JWR’s Chief of Staff met with Butts and the prime minister’s Chief of Staff, Telford and again the subject was SNC Lavalin with the allegation that JWR is not doing anything to find a solution. The response was that retaining outside counsel, a retired Supreme Court Justice, would amount to interference in this matter and the response from Butts is alleged to be there is “no solution without interference.”
The December 18, meeting seems to have directly led to the December 19 phone call to JWR from the Clerk. We have heard the Clerk’s version of this call and yesterday we heard JWR’s version. The Clerk stressed that SNC Lavalin may move its headquarters and there would be job losses. He explained that the prime minister is very much engaged and “is going to find a way to get it done, one way or another.” JWR warned the Clerk that he was “on dangerous ground” on this matter but the response was the prime minister is in a pretty firm frame of mind and the Clerk was worried as it was not good for the prime minister and the Attorney General to be at loggerheads, and this matter was really important to the prime minister.
This is about the time that JWR thought of the Nixon ‘Saturday Night Massacre.”
On January 7, JWR was told by the prime minister that she was being shuffled out of the AG position to be Minister of Veterans Affairs. She asked whether this stemmed from her actions on the DPA for SNC Lavalin but was told no. But she told the committee that at this time the Clerk called the Deputy Minister of Justice and told her to be ready to brief the new minister on the SNC Lavalin matter.
JWR told the committee that the Attorney General must be non-partisan in order to speak truth to power and defend the rule of law. She went on to describe that when she came to the role of Attorney General she was very conscious of the effect that not following the rule of law had on Canada’s Indigenous people.
It seems the real reason for her being shuffled is that in this government she defended the rule of law too strenuously and would not bend to political entreaties.
Dealing with this testimony, she was repeatedly asked two questions; why did you not report this interference to the prime minister and why did you not resign. The answer to the first question was that she did bring it to his attention and for the most part the pressure was coming from those in the PMO and those who are said to speak for the prime minister. On the second, she did not resign because she was doing her job and really the only person who stood between SNC Lavalin and a DPA. And as Professor Turpel-Lafond said in her testimony it was up to the Attorney General to stand her ground. As JWR said there was no interference with the justice system because I didn’t let it happen.
Simply put, in situations like this one, the end does not justify the means.
Now What? What’s Next?
Last evening Conservative Party leader Scheer called for Trudeau’s resignation. NDP leader Singh called for a public inquiry. Neither will happen, at least in the near future. A public inquiry reporting after the October election may be the best option if this matter continues to stick to the government. What the government should not want is an RCMP investigation under Section 139 of the Criminal Code, dealing with obstruction of justice.
The Justice Committee still has work to do if the government members do not shut it down. It should hear from those mentioned in JWR’s testimony and it should consider studying the separation of the role of Attorney General and Minister of Justice.
The remaining shackles should be removed from JWR so she can speak about the period she spent as Veterans Affairs and reasons for her resignation from cabinet.
The volley back from the prime minister last evening probably set the stage for the next few weeks. Trudeau said he strongly disagrees with JWR’s characterization of events. He stressed that all the government was trying to do was protect jobs. He said that his government will “always defend jobs and the rule of law.”
Looking at the next few weeks, if the prime minister can stick with last night’s messaging and does not add anything more, he might be able to get through to the mid-March budget successfully. As the next two weeks are break weeks it will require hard work by Scheer and Singh to keep this alive without daily question period.
However if this matter is still a live issue when the budget is presented on March 19, then the government should consider itself to be in serious difficulty.
Trudeau now has to decide whether to keep JWR in caucus. From her answers after the committee meeting she still sees herself as a Liberal representing her constituents. Will the prime minister decide to throw his former star candidate and minister to the wind? A lot will turn on Trudeau’s decision on caucus membership; how much, will depend on how serious he sees the problem his government is in.
--today, Premier Notley to discuss Bill C-69 before the Senate Energy Committee
--today, the Parliamentary Budget Office releases its “Fiscal Analysis of the Interim F-18 Aircraft”—the purchase of these jets from Australia
--March 1, GDP numbers for December to be released
--March 6, Bank of Canada deals with interest rates
The next two weeks are break weeks for the House of Commons so The Morning Brief will return on Tuesday, March 5--bc