'I take responsibility,' Trudeau says in wake of damning report on SNC-Lavalin ethics violation

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he accepts full responsibility after Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion found he violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to influence then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and get her to overrule a decision to not grant a deferred prosecution agreement to Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

Ethics commissioner Mario Dion says Trudeau inappropriately tried to influence Jody Wilson-Raybould

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured Wednesday at press conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., contravened Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act through a series of 'flagrant attempts to influence' then Justice Minister Jody Wilson‑Raybould to reach an agreement with SNC-Lavalin to avoid criminal prosecution. (Andrej Ivanov/Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he accepts full responsibility after Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion found he violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to influence then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and get her to overrule a decision to not grant a deferred prosecution agreement to Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

In his report released Wednesday, Dion wrote, "The evidence showed there were many ways in which Mr. Trudeau, either directly or through the actions of those under his direction, sought to influence the attorney general."

"The prime minister, directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms. Wilson‑Raybould. The authority of the prime minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the director of public prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson‑Raybould as the Crown's chief law officer," Dion said.

Dion found Trudeau contravened Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act through a series of "flagrant attempts to influence" Wilson‑Raybould to reach an agreement with SNC-Lavalin to avoid criminal prosecution. That section of the code prohibits any official responsible for high level decision-making in government from seeking to influence the decision of another person to "improperly further another person's private interests."

SNC is facing bribery and fraud charges related to alleged payments of close to $50 million to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011 to secure government contracts. The company is due back in court Sept. 20.

Findings 'consistent with what I shared with Canadians': Wilson-Raybould

Speaking to reporters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Trudeau said that while he disagrees with some of Dion's findings, he accepts the report and takes full responsibility for all that transpired.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters in Niagara on the Lake on Wednesday

"We recognize the way that this happened shouldn't have happened. I take responsibility for the mistakes that I made," Trudeau said.

"Where I disagree with the commissioner is where he says that any contact with the attorney general on this issue was improper."

One of Dion's conclusions was that Trudeau should not have put forward any arguments for or against a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) to the attorney general. On criminal matters, there is no room for debate between the attorney general and cabinet colleagues, he said.

In a statement, Wilson-Raybould said Dion's report was a vindication of sorts because it "confirms critical facts, consistent with what I shared with Canadians, and affirms the position I have taken from the outset," namely, that there "were multiple attempts to improperly influence my decision."

Trudeau 'directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms. Wilson‑Raybould,' Dion found. Wilson-Raybould is seen speaking to supporters at a news conference in Vancouver in May. (Jackie Dives/Reuters)

"I also have feelings of sadness," she said in the statement posted on her Facebook page.

"In a country as great as Canada, essential values and principles that are the foundation for our freedoms and system of government should be actively upheld by all, especially those in positions of public trust. We should not struggle to do this. The report reminds us that we must all remain vigilant."

Trudeau says he won't apologize for protecting jobs

Trudeau, meanwhile, defended his conduct, saying he was trying to avoid negative consequences of a criminal prosecution of a major employer.

"My job as prime minister is to stand up for Canadians and defend their interests," he said. "Yes, it is essential that we do that in a way that defends our institutions and upholds prosecutorial independence, but we need to talk about the impacts on Canadians right across the country of decisions being made.

"I can't apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs."

While Dion found Trudeau contravened the act, the commissioner does not have the power to impose sanctions for such a violation.

He can impose financial penalties on public officer-holders for failing to meet certain reporting requirements — such as declaring a gift — but those penalties do not apply in this case, a spokesperson for Dion said in a statement to CBC News.

A man sits with his index fingers together pointing upwards.
Dion found Trudeau contravened Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act. That section prohibits any official responsible for high level decision-making in government from seeking to influence the decision of another person to 'improperly further another person's private interests.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In an interview with Dion as part of the commissioner's investigation, Trudeau denied he tried to improperly influence Wilson-Raybould but said he felt that the former justice minister did not adequately consider the possibility of negotiating a DPA with SNC-Lavalin.

He said he considered a DPA to be in the public interest and thought Wilson-Raybould should be reminded of alternatives to criminal prosecution for alleged corporate wrongdoing.

Trudeau said he was concerned that a criminal prosecution could have wide-ranging consequences for SNC-Lavalin employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers and could threaten the continued viability of the major firm.

He also said substantial infrastructure projects, such as Montreal's Champlain Bridge and the light rail system, built in part by SNC-Lavalin, would be in jeopardy if the company were convicted. 

In a submission to Dion made by Trudeau's lawyer, the prime minister said that, even before the SNC-Lavalin affair became public through a media report, he had concerns about Wilson-Raybould's competence as justice minister and he was troubled by "significant friction" between the B.C. minister and her other cabinet colleagues.

"Mr. Trudeau's legal counsel further submitted that Ms. Wilson-Raybould failed in her duty, as attorney general, to acquaint herself with all the relevant facts," Dion said.

"Rather than making a meaningful independent decision of her own, Ms. Wilson-Raybould reflexively deferred to the director of public prosecutions' decision."

Based on testimony provided at the House of Commons justice committee, Wilson-Raybould considered whether to pursue a DPA for 12 days before deferring to Kathleen Roussel, the director of public prosecutions, on the matter.

Political opponents react

The Liberal government's political opponents pounced on Dion's scathing report Wednesday, saying the commissioner's findings demonstrate Trudeau is unfit to lead the country.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the RCMP should be called in to investigate potential criminality on the part of the prime minister.

"What we have now is a clear picture of who Justin Trudeau clearly is, and it's not who he promised he would be," Scheer told reporters in Regina.

"He promised he would be accountable and ethical. Instead, time and time again, he has used the power of his office to enrich himself, reward his friends and punish his critics."

The RCMP said Wednesday it's reviewing the facts of the SNC-Lavalin case "carefully."

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer spoke to reporters in Regina on Wednesday

Scheer said that while Trudeau had promised to be an open and honest leader, when the SNC story broke, he "denied it completely."

"He said that the story was false. He then said that he never pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould. We now know that is false," the Conservative leader said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called Dion's findings a "bombshell report."

"It's unprecedented that the ethics commissioner now has found two contraventions of the Conflict of Interest Act. Two contraventions," he said, referencing another ethics report that found Trudeau violated conflict of interest laws by accepting a free vacation to the Aga Khan's private island in the Bahamas.

"And this one specifically, the deep concern is that Mr. Trudeau, the prime minister, was working to benefit the interest of a multi-millionaire corporation and was working to benefit his own self-interest to get re-elected.

"Mr. Trudeau cannot be the prime minister of Canada."

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says that Trudeau's history of ethics violations should not be re-elected as Prime Minister.

As part of his investigation, Dion found that former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, who was acting as SNC-Lavalin's lawyer at the time, prepared a report to be delivered to Wilson-Raybould that outlined the "legitimacy for her to intervene in criminal matters" after the federal Liberal government introduced amendments to the Criminal Code allowing DPAs, also known as remediation agreements, in February 2018.

Another retired Supreme Court justice, John Major, prepared a complementary report on whether the refusal to pursue a DPA with SNC-Lavalin was "unlawful." Both reports were delivered to the Prime Minister's Office.

Conversations Michael Wernick, Former clerk of the Privy Council, Trudeau and other senior staff had with Wilson-Raybould about the political implications of an SNC prosecution were 'improper,' Dion found. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Wilson-Raybould told Dion she never reviewed the reports. Trudeau said he, too, had not seen the content of the briefs but their legal opinions informed his belief that it was legitimate for Wilson-Raybould to direct prosecutors to consider alternative legal options.

However, the alternative legal option for addressing corporate wrongdoing was made law only after aggressive lobbying efforts by SNC-Lavalin and its affiliates, Dion found, including efforts to get the amendment allowing DPAs tacked on to an omnibus budget bill.

Starting in 2016, the company's leadership met personally with Trudeau and other senior staff to push for the "timely implementation of a regime via the federal budget." 

Trudeau told Dion he was unfamiliar with this legal avenue before that meeting with the engineering firm.

After some public consultations, DPAs were added to the budget implementation act in February 2018, a decision that was welcomed by SNC-Lavalin, which saw it as a way to "increase the likelihood of a settlement of the company's pending criminal charges."

'Troubling tactics'

The ethics commissioner said his review of the SNC-Lavalin affair turned up other "troubling tactics" and behaviour by some of the country's most senior public office-holders — including an inappropriate consideration of partisan political interests when discussing whether to proceed with a criminal trial.

Dion said discussions between Trudeau, former privy council clerk Michael Wernick, his senior staff and Wilson-Raybould about a political fallout in Quebec if the federal government did not reach a DPA with the company were "improper."

During a Sept. 17, 2018, meeting about the legal matter, Trudeau reminded Wilson-Raybould that he was "an MP in Quebec — the member for Papineau," a statement Dion interpreted as an attempt by the prime minister to remind his minister about the "larger political repercussions in Quebec, both for the federal and provincial orders of government."

He said further talk of the 2019 federal election was evidence that Wilson-Raybould felt considerable pressure from the prime minister to reach a conclusion favourable to the "governing party," the Liberal Party of Canada.

Dion said the prime minister and his staff viewed the SNC-Lavalin matter "chiefly through a political lens" that needed to be managed to protect partisan considerations rather than as a legal issue best left to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, the independent body that prosecutes federal offences.

WATCH | Leaders react to ethics commissioner's findings:

Trudeau, Opposition leaders respond to damning ethics report

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With the federal election drawing near, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are calling on Canadians to vote out Trudeau as prime minister.

"The repeated interventions by the prime minister, his most senior ministerial staff and public officials to have the attorney general find a solution, even in the face of her refusal to intervene in the matter, lead me to conclude that these actions were tantamount to political direction," Dion said.

While the prime minister had only one face-to-face interaction with Wilson-Raybould where the SNC-Lavalin matter was discussed, the ethics commissioner said he would not investigate other players in the PMO or Finance Minister Bill Morneau's office who sought to influence the former minister because they "acted in accordance with the general direction set by Mr. Trudeau in September 2018 and did not receive instruction to cease communications, even once related legal proceedings had commenced."

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John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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