No political interference in SNC-Lavalin donations probe, top election officer says
Opposition wants Yves Côté to testify before parliamentary committee over agreement with engineering firm
Canada's elections commissioner says he has never experienced attempts by "any elected official or political staffer" to influence or interfere with his investigations into possible violations of electoral law.
Yves Côté issued a statement Thursday after renewed criticism of a 2016 agreement not to prosecute engineering giant SNC-Lavalin for its efforts over a period of years to violate Canadian election law by making illegal donations to the federal Liberal and Conservative parties.
"In my time as commissioner, there has never been any attempt by elected officials, political staffers or public servants to influence the course of an investigation or to interfere with our work," Côté said in the statement.
Côté's office has been under scrutiny after a secret document was leaked to The Fifth Estate/Enquête last week, revealing the names of several former top executives at SNC-Lavalin who were involved in an illegal campaign funding scheme a decade ago that primarily benefited the federal Liberal Party.
The scheme spanned several federal election and leadership campaigns between 2004 and 2011. In 2016, the commissioner offered SNC-Lavalin a "compliance agreement," meaning no charges would be laid against the company — after it vowed never to do it again.
Côté said there was no political pressure exerted and he made the decision independent of government.
Still, some opposition MPs are calling on Côté to testify before the House of Commons ethics committee.
They want to know what kind of communications there might have been between the Liberal Party, the Prime Minister's Office and the Commissioner of Canada Elections during the investigation of the SNC federal election donation scheme.
And MPs want to know why only one person was charged when the letter leaked to The Fifth Estate/Enquête shows the involvement of numerous high-ranking former executives, employees and some of their spouses.
"Elections Canada has a lot of explaining to do," says Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre. "SNC Lavalin used 18 employees, over four years, to funnel over $100,000 in illegal money to the Liberal Party."
"The Commissioner of Canada Elections knew about that and yet didn't take them to court, didn't lay charges and didn't try to get a conviction. We need to know why."
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, who is vice-chair of the ethics committee, is also calling for Côté to testify for what he calls an "unusual use of a compliance order for something of this magnitude." He says it appears as if SNC-Lavalin created a "money-laundering scheme to get political influence."
In the House of Commons yesterday, Lisa Raitt, Conservative deputy leader, demanded to know whether the Prime Minister's Office had communicated with the commissioner's office about SNC-Lavalin.
"The last time SNC-Lavalin, compliance agreements and PMO came together we had four months of drip, drip of information coming out," Raitt said. She pointed out that there were several meetings between the PMO and SNC-Lavalin in 2016, the year the commissioner made the decision not to prosecute the engineering firm.
"Can the prime minister let us know if that topic came up?"
The Prime Minister's Office has still not answered that question directly. In a statement Thursday, it echoed the commissioner's assertion that Canada Elections is independent from any political influence.
"We respect all independent officers," the PMO statement said.
In the wake of the Fifth Estate/Enquête story, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he and his government made "significant" changes to the political fundraising regime after they came to power in 2015. "We have moved forward on transparency and openness, and (issues around political financing) is not what happens anymore."
An investigation by the Commissioner of Canada Elections found SNC-Lavalin's scheme broke federal election laws by secretly reimbursing employees who had made donations to federal political parties. The investigation found Liberals received more than $100,000 in those illegal donations, and the Conservatives received more than $8,000. In Canada, corporate donations have been banned since 2004.
Documents leaked to The Fifth Estate/Enquête also show that on Aug. 22, 2016 — two weeks after being told of the existence of the SNC-Lavalin scheme — the Liberal Party sent a letter to the commissioner stating that it had "no prior knowledge" of the illegal activity.
The party determined it had no involvement after it "reviewed previous records" and spoke with party officials, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party said in its statement.
Former Conservative member of Parliament Dean Del Mastro is also calling on Parliament to question the commissioner.
Del Mastro was sentenced to a month in jail in 2015 after he was convicted of three electoral offences related to the 2008 election: overspending, failing to report a personal contribution of $21,000 he made to his own campaign and filing a false report. He said he does not understand why SNC-Lavalin was allowed to avoid any charges for similar violations.
"We have a disproportionate system of justice, and it selectively prosecutes people. And some people it shields and protects and others it comes down on with full force," he said.