Lobbyists scrambled to manage Liberal cabinet's review of Davie ship contract, documents show

Newly unsealed court documents related to the RCMP investigation of the country’s second-highest military commander show how two top Ottawa lobby firms scrambled to assess whether federal Treasury Board President Scott Brison wanted to scuttle the navy’s planned lease of a supply ship.

Judge unseals search warrants from RCMP's investigation of alleged cabinet leak

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman has been suspended as vice chief of the defence staff since January as a result of an RCMP investigation into alleged cabinet leaks. A judge has order documents related to the case unsealed. (CBC)

Newly unsealed court documents related to the RCMP investigation of the country's second-highest military commander show how two top Ottawa lobby firms scrambled to assess whether federal Treasury Board President Scott Brison wanted to scuttle the navy's planned lease of a supply ship.

The search warrants, released late Wednesday, also shed more light on how one of those lobbyists used a personal relationship with a former CBC News journalist in an attempt to manage and gain insight into a decision by the newly-appointed Liberal cabinet to temporarily halt the program.

The court documents are the second batch to be released in the case involving Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, who was head of the Royal Canadian Navy at the time.

The RCMP alleged, in court records made public last April, that they believe Norman and one other unnamed government official leaked cabinet secrets to executives at Federal Fleet Services Inc., which is the centre of the $660 million lease project.

The company operates out of the Chantier-Davie shipyard in Levis, Que.

The federal police force has not charged Norman, who has been suspended from his job as vice chief of defence staff since early January after his home was raided and electronics seized as part of the investigation.

All of the court documents and associated emails were ordered unsealed by Ontario Superior Court Justice Kevin Phillips after petitions by media organizations, including CBC News, Bell Media, the Globe and Mail and Postmedia.

The RCMP claim a decision by a cabinet committee, in November 2015, to re-examine the ship lease was leaked by Norman, who was head of the navy at the time, to the shipyard and its two lobbying firms — Hill & Knowlton and Fleishman-Hillard.

The information was then passed along to journalist James Cudmore, who ran with the story on Nov. 20, 2015.

RCMP called in to investigate leak

After the matter became public, the Liberals allowed the lease to proceed but also called in the RCMP.

Brison later told investigators the leak of the cabinet committee's hesitation prevented the federal government from conducting a proper review and that minister felt pressured.

Cudmore was later hired by the Liberal government and now works as a senior policy adviser to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

The newly-released documents show shipyard executives and lobbyists traded rumours and debated what role, if any, Brison might have had in the decision to pause the sole-source program.

Davie shipyard holds open house to unveil new naval supply ship ((Guylaine Bussières/ Radio-Canada))

"Sounds like a delay tactic," wrote Alex Vicefield, head of Inocea, the international shipping company that owns Davie, on Nov. 19, 2015.

"If it does transpire to be that, I will do a full page plea in the Globe and Mail to Scott Brison asking that this Nova Scotia minister put his regional bias aside for matters of national security. … then I will lay off 400 guys next week."

Questions about Irving

The lease contract for the temporary supply ship was initially signed by the former Conservative government just days before the 2015 election was called.

Some of the lobbyists believed rival Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax was trying to kill the project, but others weren't so sure.

"I spoke with CBC tonight and I know the source of their insight into Brison's review," Nicolas Ruszkowski, of Fleishman-Hillard wrote before the story broke.

"There is a concern the information that was transmitted was transmitted without sufficient context. CBC was told this was possibly an Irving gambit, for example and if Brison caught wind — ever — that any of Davie's [government relations/public relations] firm was managing Davie's concerns at this early stage through the media, all the while doing Irving's bidding, we would have hell to pay."

Ruszkowski went on to say that "knowing Scott Brison personally, as I do, I can tell you that suggestion is not accurate."

He also suggested he be allowed to manage the flow of information to the media at that delicate point in time as the story was unfolding.

"Where CBC is concerned, between the enormous amount of time and confidence we've invested in building a relationship with Terry Milewski and my close personal relationship with James Cudmore (we vacation together and raise our respective three-year-old boys together), I'd ask that activities be coordinated through [Fleishman-Hillard]."

Neither Cudmore nor a spokesperson for Brison were available to respond.

Norman has remained silent since being suspended, although his lawyer, Marie Henein, released a statement last winter, saying Norman unequivocally denies any wrongdoing.

Instead, she said her client has been "caught in the bureaucratic cross-fire."


Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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