'I made no threats': Key moments from the Privy Council clerk's testimony on the SNC-Lavalin affair

Michael Wernick, the most senior public servant in the country, has denied an accusation from former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould that he made "veiled threats" to pressure her to sign a plea bargain-like deal with the Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.
Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, right, and Justice Department Deputy Minister Nathalie Drouin appear before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights regarding the SNC Lavalin affair on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 6, 2019. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Michael Wernick, the most senior public servant in the country, has denied an accusation from former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould that he made "veiled threats" to pressure her to sign a plea bargain-like deal with the Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

Wernick and deputy minister of justice Nathalie Drouin testified before the House of Commons justice committee on the SNC-Lavalin matter on Wednesday — in Wernick's case, for the second time.

This was Wernick's chance to address Wilson-Raybould's claim that he made "veiled threats" to pressure her to sign a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for SNC-Lavalin during a December 2018 call. She told the committee that she felt that her conversation with Wernick implied a threat akin to the Watergate-era "Saturday Night Massacre" — that she would, in other words, have to either comply or resign.

Wernick said Wednesday that Wilson-Raybould did not face inappropriate pressure from anyone in the Prime Minister's Office or from him personally.

Wernick said rather she was simply warned of the "consequences" of not signing an agreement — specifically, that some of the company's 9,000 employees could lose their jobs.

1. Wernick 'did not wear a wire'

While acknowledging he "did not wear a wire" or take contemporaneous notes on his conversations with the minister, and so could not definitively disprove Wilson-Raybould's testimony, Wernick insisted he did "not threaten the attorney general."

"I have never raised partisan considerations. I reminded her repeatedly she was the final decision-maker. I was giving her relevant context. I made no threats to the former attorney general. Period," he said.

"The former minister agreed that entering into a deferred prosecution agreement was entirely lawful." 0:21

Wilson-Raybould testified that she reached a final conclusion on whether to pursue a DPA on Sept. 16, some 12 days after the director of public prosecutions is said to have made a similar decision. She maintains that her decision should have ended any intervention by other ministers or political staff.

When asked by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid if she thought that was sufficient time to adequately consider a DPA, Drouin said that was not for her to say. "She did say in her testimony that she did her due diligence. I was not part of that due diligence exercise," Drouin said.

Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's former principal secretary, also testified Wednesday that he thought that timeline might have been too compressed for such an important decision.

2. 'Lawful advocacy'

Wernick said Wednesday the decision could never really be considered "final" until the delivery of a verdict in a criminal prosecution.

"It's never final. She could always take into consideration public interest considerations," Wernick said. "The minister experienced lawful advocacy to consider doing something lawful in the public interest."

"She had the ability, as new public interest considerations emerged, to reassess the context and re-examine her reasoning and that is the most she was ever asked to do." 0:52

Kathleen Roussel, the director of public prosecutions, herself gave the case a second look in October after the company presented new evidence.

Asked if a decision on this matter is rightfully considered "final" before there is a verdict in a criminal prosecution, Drouin said: "It's the responsibility of a prosecutor to asses and reassess ... in light of new facts and evidence put in front of the prosecutor."

3. Wilson-Raybould blocks PCO report

Drouin said she spoke with Wilson-Raybould the day after the minister's Sept. 17 meeting with Trudeau and Wernick on the issue.

Wilson-Raybould expressed discomfort over the meeting, Drouin said, adding she didn't have any further involvement with the file after Sept. 19 ("She asked me not to talk any more about the SNC-Lavalin case," the bureaucrat testified) — with one notable exception.

At the end of October, the Privy Council Office (PCO) asked her department for advice on the potential impact on SNC-Lavalin if a deferred prosecution agreement — which would have allowed the company to avoid a criminal trial on bribery charges — was not pursued. That advice was "not provided to PCO at the request of the minister's office," Drouin said.

"I was instructed not to send it," Drouin said. "My minister was not comfortable with us sharing it to PCO."

4. Wilson-Raybould was told DPA was 'lawful'

In early September, Drouin said she briefed the former attorney general on the possible legal options she could pursue on the SNC-Lavalin matter, including a DPA.

Drouin did not offer an opinion on whether a DPA was "appropriate" in this case, but said she told Wilson-Raybould that SNC-Lavalin could qualify for that sort of agreement if she decided to go that route.

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt spars with Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick over his communications with SNC Lavalin. 2:03

"I cannot have an opinion. To make an opinion or not on a DPA, on a specific case, you have to be aware of the evidence and I have never been aware of the evidence [against the company]," she said. "It was her decision whether or not to use her authorities under the act.

"It's not an interference because they are powers provided under the act ... We respect the parameters, the first one being consultation with (Roussel)."

5. Wernick accused of partisanship

Wernick, a career public servant who has worked in senior roles under both Conservative and Liberal prime ministers, also defended himself against accusations from opposition parties that he acted in a partisan matter in his last appearance before the committee. He criticized comments from Conservative Sen. David Tkachuk and online vitriol directed at Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.

"I set this out because it has been suggested that I am part of someone's political agenda. I serve the government of the day." 0:54

He also defended the content of his last opening statement, which included a warning that a politician could get shot during the next election campaign because of the strident nature of social media political commentary. Wernick said he "stands by every word" of his warning.

"I am profoundly disappointed to be accused of partisanship," Wernick said. "I deplore the cyberbullying of politicians of all stripes."

Wernick also tabled with the committee evidence of some of the attacks he said have been directed at him since he last testified. He compared some of it, tweeted by Conservative and NDP MPs, to witness intimidation.

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The justice committee reconvenes March 19 — the day Finance Minister Bill Morneau tables his next budget — to debate whether to call more witnesses.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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