Trudeau’s conduct in SNC-Lavalin matter violated ethics code, watchdog finds

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has found that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the ethics code by trying to encourage former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to reach a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

“The evidence showed there were many ways in which Mr. Trudeau, either directly or through the actions of those under his direction, sought to influence the Attorney General,” Dion wrote, in his report released Wednesday.

“The Prime Minister, directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms. Wilson‑Raybould. The authority of the Prime Minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson‑Raybould as the Crown’s chief law officer,” Dion said.

Dion found Trudeau contravened Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act through a series of “flagrant attempts to influence” Wilson‑Raybould to reach an agreement with SNC-Lavalin to avoid criminal prosecution. That section of the code prohibits any official responsible for high level decision-making in government from seeking to influence the decision of another person to “improperly further another person’s private interests.”

Dion found Trudeau contravened Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act. That section prohibits any official responsible for high level decision-making in government from seeking to influence the decision of another person to ‘improperly further another person’s private interests.’ (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In an interview with Dion as part of the investigation, Trudeau denied he tried to improperly influence Wilson-Raybould but rather he felt that the former justice minister did not adequately consider the possibility of negotiating a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin — something he considered to be in the public interest, and that she should be reminded of alternatives to criminal prosecution for alleged corporate wrongdoing.

In a submission to Dion made by Trudeau’s lawyer, the prime minister told Dion that, even before the SNC-Lavalin affair became public through a media report, he had concerns about Wilson-Raybould’s competence as justice minister, and he was troubled by “significant friction” between the B.C. minister and her other cabinet colleagues.

“Mr. Trudeau’s legal counsel further submitted that Ms. Wilson-Raybould failed in her duty, as Attorney General, to acquaint herself with all the relevant facts. Rather than making a meaningful independent decision of her own, Ms. Wilson-Raybould reflexively deferred to the Director of Public Prosecutions’ decision,” Dion said.

Trudeau said he was concerned that a criminal prosecution could have wide-ranging consequences for SNC-Lavalin employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers, and could threaten the continued viability of the major firm.

‘Troubling tactics’

The ethics commissioner said his review of the SNC-Lavalin affair turned up “troubling tactics” and behaviour by some of the country’s most senior public office-holders — including an inappropriate consideration of partisan political interests when discussing whether to proceed with a criminal trial.

Dion said discussions between Trudeau, former privy council clerk Michael Wernick, his senior staff and Wilson-Raybould about a political fallout in Quebec if the federal government did not reach a DPA with the company was “improper.”

During a Sept. 17, 2018, meeting about the legal matter, Trudeau reminded Wilson-Raybould that he was “an MP in Quebec — the member for Papineau,” a statement Dion interpreted as an attempt by the prime minister to remind his minister about the “larger political repercussions in Quebec, both for the federal and provincial orders of government.”

He said further talk of the 2019 federal election was evidence that Wilson-Raybould felt considerable pressure from the prime minister to reach a conclusion favourable to the “governing party,” the Liberal Party of Canada.

Dion said the prime minister and his staff viewed the SNC-Lavalin matter “chiefly through a political lens” that needed to be managed to protect partisan considerations rather than as a legal issue best left to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, the independent body that prosecutes federal offences.

“The repeated interventions by the Prime Minister, his most senior ministerial staff and public officials to have the Attorney General find a solution, even in the face of her refusal to intervene in the matter, lead me to conclude that these actions were tantamount to political direction,” Dion said.

While the prime minister had only one face-to-face interaction with Wilson-Raybould where the SNC-Lavalin matter was discussed, the ethics commissioner said he would not investigate other players in the Prime Minister’s Office or Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office who sought to influence the former minister because they “acted in accordance with the general direction set by Mr. Trudeau in September 2018 and did not receive instruction to cease communications, even once related legal proceedings had commenced.”

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