Did SNC-Lavalin play a role in the last cabinet shuffle? 'Wide range of factors' did, Trudeau says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the door to more questions this morning about his conversations with former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould about the SNC-Lavalin fraud case and his reasons for then shuffling her out of that role.

PM was asked if the SNC-Lavalin affair played a role in shuffling Wilson-Raybould out of justice

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, continues to be dogged by questions about the cabinet move and subsequent resignation of former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould. (Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the door to more questions this morning about his conversations with former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould regarding the SNC-Lavalin fraud case and his reasons for shuffling her out of that role.

Wilson-Raybould resigned as Veterans Affairs minister earlier this week — just days after a Globe and Mail report alleged that when she was at the Department of Justice, she was pressured to tell the director of public prosecutions to draft a "deferred prosecution agreement" to avoid taking SNC-Lavalin to trial on bribery and fraud charges in relation to contracts in Libya.

Wilson-Raybould was moved from the Department of Justice to Veterans Affairs in January's cabinet shuffle.

Trudeau defended that shakeup, arguing it was triggered by former Treasury Board president Scott Brison's decision to not run again and to step down from cabinet.

"If Scott Brison had not stepped down from cabinet, Jody Wilson-Raybould would still be minister of justice and attorney general," Trudeau told reporters during a BlackBerry funding announcement in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata.

When pressed to say whether the SNC-Lavalin affair played a role in reassigning Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau said there were a "wide range of factors" to consider.

"Any time one makes a decision to shift members of cabinet, there always a wide range of factors that go into making that decision," he said.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen said the lack of a firm "no" in response to that question was troubling.

"Let me be clear. If he is given a specific question — was she fired because she didn't do what you wanted her to do and obstruct justice? — and his answer is anything other than 'no', definitively, we have a problem," he said.

"We have a huge problem. Because that is obstruction of justice. That is going to the very heart of what corruption looks like.

"I am stunned by the prime minister's answer to this because it was as close to a confirmation that you're probably going to get from this guy as to what really happened here."

PM says Wilson-Raybould asked if he would be directing her 

Since the first SNC-Lavalin story broke in the Globe and Mail late last week, Trudeau has denied that his aides pressured Wilson-Raybould to intercede on the company's behalf.

On Friday he said that Wilson-Raybould did ask him if he was going to offer her direction following the "many discussions" his government was having about the Quebec engineering firm's fraud and bribery case — including discussions with Quebec premiers, MPs and the company's representatives.

"There were many discussions going on, which is why Jody Wilson-Raybould asked me if I was directing her or going to direct her to take a particular decision," Trudeau said. "And I of course said no, that it was her decision to make and I expected her to make it.

"Obviously, as a government, we take very seriously our responsibility of standing up for jobs, of protecting jobs, of growing the economy, of making sure that there are good jobs right across the country, as there are with SNC-Lavalin. But as we do that we always need to make sure we're standing up for the rule of law and protecting the independence of our justice system."

Cullen said Friday's press conference was a litany of excuses.

​"It looked desperate. I mean, blaming this whole thing on the departure of one of his cabinet ministers is insulting the intelligence of Canadians. I don't understand how the Liberals think this is going to work," he said.

"I truly believe this thing is unraveling in front of our eyes. I don't know why the prime minister thinks he is winning the day and sounding at all believable."

When asked if Wilson-Raybould might have interpreted his comments as pressure, Trudeau insisted again that it was her responsibility to raise those concerns.

"If the minister or anyone else felt undue pressure or felt that we were not living up to our own high standards of defence of the rule of law and our judicial system and judicial independence, it was their responsibility to come forward."

He also wouldn't answer questions about what Wilson-Raybould told him when she tendered her resignation, saying only that he accepted her decision even if he didn't understand it.

When asked for her side of the story, Wilson-Raybould has cited solicitor-client privilege.

In her resignation letter, she said she has retained the services of lawyer Thomas Cromwell, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, to advise her on "topics that I am legally permitted to discuss on this matter.

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.

The company has pleaded not guilty.

If convicted, the company could be blocked from competing for federal government contracts for a decade.

The case is still at the preliminary hearing stage.

About the Author

Catharine Tunney

Reporter

Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked with CBC Radio's The House and CBC Nova Scotia. She can be reached at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca or @cattunneyCBC.

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