Top civil servant denies 'inappropriate' pressure against Wilson-Raybould in SNC-Lavalin case

Canada's top civil servant insists there was no inappropriate pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould to override a decision to prosecute SNC-Lavalin, but says he warned her about the dire economic "consequences" of criminal proceedings.

PCO clerk Michael Wernick says he warned of 'consequences' of prosecution against engineering giant

Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick appeared before the Justice Committee meeting in Ottawa, Thursday February 21, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's top civil servant insists there was no inappropriate pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould to override a decision to prosecute SNC-Lavalin, but says he warned her about the dire economic "consequences" of criminal proceedings.

In blunt testimony before the justice committee Thursday, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick said he called the then-justice minister and attorney general on Dec. 19, 2018 to discuss various issues — including the option of a remediation agreement that would serve as an alternative to prosecution for the Quebec-based global engineering company, which is facing bribery and fraud charges related to contracts in Libya.

During that call, Wernick said, he spoke of the implications of prosecuting the company for employees, suppliers and communities. He said he told Wilson-Raybould that the prime minister and "a lot of her colleagues" were anxious about what they were hearing and reading in business press — articles warning that the company could close down or move if criminal proceedings went ahead.

"I am quite sure the minister felt pressured to get it right, and part of my conversation with her on Dec. 19 was conveying context that there were a lot of people worried about what would happen ... the consequences not for her, the consequences for the workers, and the communities and the suppliers," he told MPs probing the scandal now engulfing the Liberal government.

Wernick insisted he did not cross any line in his exchanges with Wilson-Raybould.

"I can tell you with complete assurance that my view of those conversations is that they were within the boundaries of what's lawful and appropriate. I was informing the minister of context. She may have another view of the conversation, but that's something the ethics commissioner could sort out," he said.

In the end, Wernick said, the matter may boil down to an interpretation of what constitutes 'pressure'.

"I think the matter may come down to the ethics commissioner's view on a conversation between two people, between what was sent and what was received. And I think the ethics commissioner is the appropriate person to decide what was undue and what was inappropriate," he said.

Wernick's extraordinary testimony sets the stage for what could be a fierce rebuttal from Wilson-Raybould, who is expected to appear before the committee early next week.

Michael Wernick the Clerk of the Privy Council spoke to the Commons Justice committee Thursday 0:27

Wernick also attacked the bombshell Feb. 7 Globe and Mail report that touched off the political scandal and triggered the resignation of cabinet minister Wilson-Raybould and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerry Butts.

"I'm here to say to you that the Globe and Mail article contains errors, unfounded speculation and, in some cases, is simply defamatory," he said.

The article — citing unnamed, anonymous sources — said that Trudeau's aides attempted to press Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, and that exasperation with her lack of co-operation was one reason for shuffling her out of the justice portfolio.

Wernick repeatedly denied any undue pressure from Trudeau or any officials in the PMO.

Michael Wernick the Clerk of the Privy Council spoke to the Commons Justice committee on Thursday 3:39

"At every opportunity, verbally and in writing in December, the prime minister made it clear that this was the decision for the minister of justice to take. She was the decision-maker," he said.

Wernick, who met with representatives of SNC-Lavalin on Sept. 18, 2018 — after the company had been turned down on its request to avoid criminal proceedings — said the firm was "making the rounds" to make a pitch to avoid prosecution. He said he could not remember whether the company advised him that it had been told the Public Prosecution Service of Canada had rejected its request.

Wernick said that if she had felt she was being put under pressure at any point, she could have filed a complaint with the ethics commissioner or reported any perceived wrongdoing to the prime minister.

In his opening remarks to the committee, Wernick said he's worried about the state of politics in Canada right now, citing the threat of foreign interference in the coming election and the use of words like 'treason' and 'traitor' in political discourse.

"Those are the words that lead to assassination," he said. "I'm worried that somebody's going to get shot this year during the political campaign."

Earlier today, Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti told the committee he has never faced inappropriate pressure from the prime minister or anyone in the PMO, and would take action if any official tried to direct his actions improperly.

‘I'm here to say to you that the Globe and Mail article contains errors, unfounded speculation and, in some cases, is simply defamatory,’ Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, said. 5:31

Lametti said he would not "speculate" on "what others might or might not do," but would only explain how he would respond to political pressure.

"I would take, under the circumstances, a number of different actions," he said.

Trudeau appointed Lametti to the post in a January cabinet shuffle that demoted Wilson-Raybould from the Department of Justice to Veterans Affairs.

She resigned from that position a month later, just days after the Globe and Mail reported that she had been pressured by officials in the Prime Minister's Office to stop criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based global engineering and construction firm facing charges of bribery and fraud related to contracts in Libya.

The Globe and Mail said PMO officials pushed her to direct the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to draft a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) — a legal tool resembling a plea deal — for SNC-Lavalin.

The Liberal government changed the Criminal Code in 2018 to introduce such remediation agreements as an option for cases of corporate wrongdoing in Canada.

Lametti said the legislative regime was addressing a perceived "gap" in the law and is meant to hold corporations to account while protecting bystanders who could be harmed by a criminal prosecution and possible bankruptcy — such as a corporation's employees, subcontractors and third-party suppliers.

Similar compliance tools — which can impose fines in lieu of prosecution — are also available in the U.S. and the U.K.

Lametti said he only had general knowledge of the SNC-Lavalin case before he was appointed to cabinet and did not discuss it with Trudeau before his appointment.

Globe and Mail report published today says Wilson-Raybould told federal cabinet ministers Tuesday she believed it was improper for PMO officials to press her to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution.

Wilson-Raybould took the unprecedented step of requesting permission to address cabinet Tuesday, and was allowed to do so after vigorous debate among ministers.

​Today, Wernick said Lametti exited the meeting during her address to cabinet.

"He saw it right away, the need to recuse, left the room and was not present for that discussion," he said.

Polling fallout

The political fallout since the Feb. 7 Globe and Mail report has been heavy for the Trudeau government.

The opposition Conservatives and NDP have called for a public inquiry and have demanded Trudeau waive solicitor-client privilege so Wilson-Raybould can speak freely on the matter during her appearance before the committee, expected sometime next week.

The CBC's Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polls, shows the scandal is taking a toll on the Liberals. It puts the Liberals and Conservatives neck-and-neck in voting intentions and virtually tied in the number of seats each party would be likely to win if an election were held today.

On Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould abstained from a vote in the House of Commons on an NDP motion calling for an inquiry because she was personally involved in the matter. She said she can't waive client-solicitor privilege on her own. 

"I understand fully that Canadians want to know the truth and want transparency," she said. "Privilege and confidentiality are not mine to waive, and I hope that I have the opportunity to speak my truth."

​During an event in Halifax Thursday, Trudeau said he remains "surprised and disappointed" by Wilson-Raybould's resignation from cabinet. He cited cabinet confidentiality and said the government is working to create good jobs and protect an independent judiciary.

"We will always do that in the right way," he said.

Lametti said the issue of waiving solicitor-client privilege is "complex and layered." He said he is seeking a way to ensure transparency and fairness without compromising cabinet confidentiality or legal proceedings, but could not say if he would make a decision before Wilson-Raybould appears at committee.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes a stop in Dartmouth and is asked about Jody Wilson-Raybould by the CBC's Paul Withers 1:54

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