Politics

'Who are they protecting?': Vice-Admiral Norman's trial erupts in Commons

The criminal case facing the military’s former second-in-command moved from the legal to the political arena Monday as the Conservative opposition accused the Liberal government of blocking Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s right to a fair trial.

Opposition suggests Brison's intervention may have benefited Irving Shipyard

Treasury Board President Scott Brison was grilled in the Commons today on his role in reviewing $668 million contract to provide the navy with a temporary supply ship. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The criminal case facing the military's former second-in-command moved from the legal to the political arena Monday as the Conservative opposition accused the Liberal government of blocking Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's right to a fair trial.

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen also put a senior Liberal cabinet on the hot seat, demanding to know whether Treasury Board President Scott Brison had authorization to lobby on behalf of Irving Shipbuilding in relation to a $668 million contract to provide the navy with a temporary supply ship.

The fireworks in the House of Commons follow a significant court filing last week. The legal team defending Norman against a single charge of breach of trust filed a motion asking the court to force the federal government to disclose a trove of secret and confidential documents.

Defence lawyers alleged the Crown has been cherry-picking the records it has already disclosed and is undermining the former vice chief of the defence staff's ability to defend himself.

Opposition House Leader Candice Bergen suggested the Liberals were undermining Vice-Adm. Mark Norman's right to a fair trial. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

"Vice Admiral Norman deserves a fair hearing, but shockingly the PMO refuses to hand over documents that are relevant," Bergen said. "Why is the prime minister's office not providing these documents? Who are they protecting?"

Bergen also accused the Liberal government of "singling (Norman) out with serious allegations of criminal misconduct," citing the alleged leak of cabinet secrets shortly after the last election.

The court filing alleged the RCMP have identified a federal government employee — other than Norman — who allegedly leaked documents to a lobbyist prior to a key federal cabinet committee meeting on Nov. 19, 2015.

That meeting was called to decide whether to proceed with a contract involving the Davie shipyard in Levis, Que., negotiated by the previous Conservative government.

The Liberals, newly elected, opted to put the agreement on a leased naval supply ship on hold while they studied it, but news of the decision leaked to the media.

The ensuing uproar prompted the government to back down and the deal proceeded — but the RCMP were called in to investigate how the decision, which was supposed to be secret, made its way to the public.

The Crown alleged Norman favoured the supply ship program and orchestrated the leak in order to embarrass the government into backing down.

Brison defended the government's initial approach to the file on Monday, saying the Liberals had a duty to examine the sole-source contract. He attempted to deflect accusations that he intervened at the cabinet meeting in order to benefit a rival shipyard.

"My mandate as president of the Treasury Board is to ensure due diligence in the expenditure of public funds and to perform a challenge function, particularly in terms of the procurement function," he said.

Brison said he did his job.

The Conservatives, however, said the minister did more than that — arguing his intervention could have benefited Nova Scotia-based Irving Shipbuilding, which had submitted a proposal rivalling the one cabinet was considering at the time.

Bergen demanded to know if Brison had been cleared by the ethics commissioner to lobby on behalf of the Irvings.

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman arrives at the courthouse in Ottawa on Tuesday, September 4, 2018. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Following the court filing on Friday, Irving Shipbuilding issued a statement saying there was nothing improper in the company's communication with the Liberal government over the temporary supply ship program.

"We expressed our concerns with the procurement process to the new government as part of an ongoing transparent dialogue," Sean Lewis said in an email.

"Our outreach highlighted our concerns and requested that our proposal be fairly evaluated. Other shipbuilders who also participated in the process to provide a [supply ship] solution also expressed concern with the project and how the government made its decision."

Norman's lawyers, in their court submission, pointed to a letter the Irvings sent to Brison, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and former procurement minister Judy Foote prior to the controversial cabinet meeting.

The letter, which extolled the company's temporary supply ship pitch, ended up being leaked in the days following the meeting.

During their investigation, RCMP decided the letter was not a cabinet secret — but Norman's lawyers alleged that the bureaucratic arm of the prime minister's office has retroactively declared it a cabinet confidence.

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