Politics

Wilson-Raybould vs. Butts: Two versions of the SNC-Lavalin affair

Gerald Butts, the prime minister's former principal secretary, offered his version of events regarding the SNC-Lavalin affair on Wednesday, a narrative that, at times, significantly conflicted with the testimony given last week by former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.

A look at the key differences in the testimony of the former attorney general and the PM's former top adviser

Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Liberal MP and former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould have different recollections of key events in the SNC-Lavalin scandal that continues to plague the Liberal government. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press, Chris Wattie/Reuters)

It was hardly surprising that Gerald Butts, the former principal secretary for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, would offer a narrative about the SNC-Lavalin affair that conflicted with the one delivered last week by Jody Wilson-Raybould.​

Wilson-Raybould had testified before the Commons justice committee that when she was attorney general she had been pressured inappropriately by senior government officials to step in and resolve the corruption and fraud case against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. If convicted, the engineering giant could be blocked from competing for federal government contracts for a decade, which many Liberals warn could potentially affect thousands of jobs.

In his appearance at the committee on Wednesday, Butts denied the key claims made by Wilson-Raybould, but insisted he did not want to "cast aspersions" or suggest that anyone is being "deliberately misleading."

"I do believe that it is possible for people to draw different conclusions from the same experiences," he said.

Here are some of those different conclusions arrived at by Butts and Wilson-Raybould regarding the ongoing scandal.

Under pressure?

What Wilson-Raybould said:

SNC-Lavalin had hoped its fraud and corruption charges could be resolved with what's known as a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), which would spare the company a trial and possible criminal conviction.

WATCH: Two versions of events in the SNC-Lavalin affair 

Compare how Gerald Butts and Jody Wilson-Raybould describe the events surrounding the SNC-Lavalin affair during testimony at the Commons committee. Wilson-Raybould testified on Feb. 27 and Butts spoke on March 6. 13:42

But the Public Prosecution Service of Canada had determined SNC didn't meet the criteria for a DPA. As attorney general, Wilson-Raybould did have the power to intervene on that file and overrule the PPSC, but she said she had decided against it.

Despite her decision, she said that for four months, from September to December 2018, she "experienced a consistent and sustained effort" by 11 senior government officials, including Butts and the prime minister, to pressure her to intervene in the case.

She said this included approximately 10 phone calls and 10 meetings specifically about SNC-Lavalin.

What Butts said:

"I am firmly convinced that nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government," Butts told the Commons justice committee.

Butts said he was "100 per cent" certain there was no co-ordinated effort in the Prime Minister's Office to get Wilson-Raybould to change her mind on the SNC-Lavalin file and that he would know if something like that had been going on.

He also raised the question of "what exactly constitutes pressure."

Butts said according to Wilson-Raybould, the 20 contacts she had over four months on this file boils down to two meetings and two phone calls per month "on an issue that could cost a minimum of 9,000 jobs."

"I think that 20 points of contact over four months is not a lot of contact," he said.

Defining 'final' decision 

What Wilson-Raybould said:

Wilson-Raybould told the committee that on Sept. 16, 2018, she made her final decision that she would not overrule the director of public prosecutions on SNC and "was not going to change her mind."

What Butts said:

Butts said he didn't believe it was possible for her to have had made a final decision on the matter since, according to briefings he'd received, the attorney general was obliged to bring in "fresh eyes" every time new evidence arose, up until a verdict on the case is rendered.

The ​Château Laurier meeting

What Wilson-Raybould said:

Wilson-Raybould testified that she had requested a meeting with Butts to talk about a number of issues including "the barrage of people hounding" her and her staff about the SNC-Lavalin file. She said that toward the end of the Dec. 5 meeting, she told him she "needed everybody to stop talking" to her about SNC, that she had made up her mind and that further engagements would be inappropriate.

Wilson-Raybould testified that when she was attorney general she was pressured by top government officials, including the prime minister, to step in and resolve the corruption and fraud case against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Butts stressed that she "needed to find a solution" on the SNC-Lavalin file, she said.

They also spoke about the Harper government's 2006 Director of Public Prosecutions Act, which established the Public Prosecution Service of Canada in an effort to prevent political interference in the prosecution of federal offences.

According to Wilson-Raybould's account, Butts said the statute was passed by Harper and that he doesn't like the law.

She responded: "That is the law that we have."

What Butts said:

Butts said he did not recall Wilson-Raybould saying anything about anyone pressuring her inappropriately.

He said the SNC-Lavalin file came up briefly at the end of their two-hour meeting and that Wilson-Raybould asked him if he had an opinion on it.

He said he pointed out that he had no expertise in the matter, and that they spoke briefly about the idea of asking a retired Supreme Court chief justice for advice.

He said the "Harper" comment referred to the PPSC not being very old, having been brought into being during the Harper years. He said that comment was a "chronological point, not a political one."

From his perspective, the meeting was the best discussion they'd had in a while and "there was nothing remotely negative about the exchange."

Meeting with Wilson-Raybould's chief of staff

What Wilson-Raybould said: 

At the hearing, Wilson-Raybould read from what she said was a text conversation between herself and her chief of staff, Jessica Prince, on Dec. 18. The exchange followed a meeting Prince had with Butts and Katie Telford, Trudeau's chief of staff.

According to Wilson-Raybould, Prince texted her that Butts and Telford wanted external counsel, preferably a former Supreme Court justice, to give Wilson-Raybould an opinion on whether she could review her SNC decision. 

Wilson-Raybould said Prince told them that would be interference. Butts is said to have responded: "Jess, there is no solution here that does not involve some interference."

What Butts said:

"I remember that meeting very, very differently than the account given last week," Butts testified.

Prince said Wilson-Raybould didn't want to consider "political factors" in the SNC-Lavalin decision, and was worried about the appearance of political interference, Butts told the committee.

Butts testified there was no inappropriate pressure put on Wilson-Raybould and that nothing happened 'beyond the normal operations of government.' (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Butts said he told Prince that it was ultimately Wilson-Raybould's decision, but he also made it clear that the jobs of 9,000 people are not a political issue but a "very real public policy issue."

He denied he said there was "no solution here that does not involve some interference," in part because the word "solution" is not one he would have used in this context.

Butts told the committee he did say that he couldn't see how having someone like former Supreme Court justice Beverley McLachlin give Wilson-Raybould advice would constitute political interference.

​Shuffled out of attorney general role

What Wilson-Raybould said:

Wilson-Raybould testified she received a call from the prime minister on Jan. 7 to inform her she was being shuffled out of her role as justice minister and attorney general. She told him she thought the reason had to do with the SNC matter, but Trudeau denied this.

What Butts said: 

​Butts said the shuffle had "absolutely nothing to do with the SNC-Lavalin" issue and was necessitated after Scott Brison announced that he was going to step down as Treasury Board president. Butts also insisted that if Brison had not resigned, Wilson-Raybould would be justice minister today.

SNC-Lavalin faces charges of fraud and corruption in connection with nearly $48 million in payments made to Libyan government officials between 2001 and 2011. (CBC)

It was decided that the best replacement for Brison, a minister from Nova Scotia, would be Jane Philpott, who at that time was the Indigenous services minister.

Wilson-Raybould, a member of the We Wai Kai Nation in B.C., would be one of the very few members of caucus who could replace Philpott in a ministry that was very important to the prime minister, Butts said.

When notified by Trudeau about her shuffle, Wilson-Raybould said she was a little bit shocked because being attorney general was her dream job — Indigenous services minister was not, Butts said. She also said that she believed she was being shuffled out for "other reasons," but Trudeau denied this, Butts told the committee. 

Butts said Wilson-Raybould turned down the offer, explaining that she had spent her life opposed to the Indian Act and couldn't be in charge of the programs administered under its authority. Instead, she was moved to the Veterans Affairs post.

On Feb. 12, less than a week after the Globe and Mail published a story that quoted anonymous sources who said Trudeau's office tried to pressure Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case, she resigned from Veterans Affairs.

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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