Vice-Admiral Norman's trial offers glimpses of cutthroat political turf battles in Ottawa

While he was prime minister, Stephen Harper’s office asked Vice Admiral Mark Norman to draw up a procurement list of equipment the navy needed and routinely communicated with him directly about a plan to lease a supply ship, an Ottawa court was told today.

Defence team in Norman's breach-of-trust trial is arguing for access to thousands of federal documents

Vice Admiral Mark Norman arrives at the Ottawa Courthouse on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Ottawa — to borrow a phrase from Dickens — is sometimes a city of cutthroats in fine linen.

Arguments in court today over the relevance of federal documents to the criminal case against the military's former second-in-command offered another reminder of that.

Lawyers for Vice-Admiral Mark Norman peeled back the curtain a little today on some of the assertions they will make at his breach of trust trial next year.

In laying out the defence argument for access to thousands of government documents, lawyer Christine Mainville painted a picture of intrigue and bloody-minded political and bureaucratic turf warfare over a $668 million plan to lease a supply ship for the navy from the Davie shipyard in Lévis, Que.

Norman is accused of leaking cabinet secrets related to that contract. The Crown also alleges that the former commander of the navy tipped off a now-former CBC reporter about the results of a secret Liberal cabinet committee decision to put the project on hold in November 2015.

The Crown alleges Norman manipulated the process in favour of the leasing project. 

In a recent court filing, prosecutors claimed to have email evidence to back up their allegation that Norman leaked confidential information on 12 separate occasions.

Norman's lawyers have asked for a trove of federal documents to defend him, including cabinet records.

An end-run around the boss

Quoting from RCMP witness transcripts (which have not been tested in court or entered into evidence), Mainville laid out how the Harper government dismissed objections from bureaucrats who opposed the proposal and set up an "alternative" process to deliver the ship.

That process — extraordinarily — bypassed the then-chief of defence staff and involved the Harper Prime Minister's Office dealing directly with Norman and the navy.

It also involved changing regulations on sole-source contracts just before the last election.

Mainville says the Conservatives put the admiral under the gun.

"We have reason to believe they believed he was not doing enough to push this through," she said.

While he was prime minister, Stephen Harper's office asked Norman to draw up a procurement list of equipment the navy needed.

It also routinely communicated directly with Norman about the plan to lease a supply ship, Mainville said.

Then-defence minister Jason Kenney also asked Norman for his opinion on how to get it done, Mainville alleged.

"So was he being loyal or not?" Mainville said. "There is more to this story than the black and white picture the Crown would like to paint."

Those direct discussions with Norman took place over the objections and advice of senior bureaucrats — including then-chief of the defence staff Tom Lawson, who in the spring of 2015 recommended the cabinet not proceed with the Davie deal.

The Conservatives ignored that advice and insisted the leasing deal move forward.

Mainville also said that, at the same time, the Harper government "was talking to (the) Davie" shipyard in the run-up to the signing of the contract.

Mainville quoted from an RCMP interview with Mellisa Burke, a senior Privy Council Office staffer. 

She argued the direct communication between the Prime Minister's Office and Norman contradicts the Crown's claim that Norman was working to undermine the federal cabinet and was leaking information to both Davie and the media to get his own way.

No 'rogue' action, says defence

She argued the thousands of documents the defence wants to see are critical to making the defence case.

"The point we want to make here is that there were communications between Vice Admiral Norman and the Prime Minister's Office," Mainville said. "And it's not a situation where Vice Admiral Norman had gone rogue."

The Conservatives agreed to lease a supply ship for the navy in the summer of 2015, but left the finalization of the contract to the new Liberal government.

Also today, Norman's lawyers were accused of improperly trying to discredit one Liberal cabinet minister and twisting the words of another.

Lawyers for the federal government took issue, in a written court filing, with lawyer Marie Henein using statements from the House of Commons' official record, Hansard.

The defence "seeks to use a statement of Minister (Scott) Brison to impeach his credibility," said the submission.

Federal lawyers point out that statements made in the Commons are privileged and cannot be considered evidence.

They also point to Henein​'s use of question period answers from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale about the hiring of former CBC journalist James Cudmore — the journalist the Crown alleges was the recipient of Norman's tip-off about the Liberal cabinet putting the brakes on the Davie leasing deal.