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Damning report says Trudeau violated ethics act during SNC-Lavalin affair

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to influence then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to overrule a decision to not grant a deferred prosecution agreement to Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has found.

“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,” Dion wrote, in his report released Wednesday.

“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.”

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

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

In an interview with Dion as part of the investigation, Trudeau denied he tried to improperly influence Wilson-Raybould but rather he felt that the former justice minister did not adequately consider the possibility of negotiating a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin — something he considered to be in the public interest, and that she should be reminded of alternatives to criminal prosecution for alleged corporate wrongdoing.

In a submission to Dion made by Trudeau’s lawyer, the prime minister told Dion 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. Rather than making a meaningful independent decision of her own, Ms. Wilson-Raybould reflexively deferred to the Director of Public Prosecutions’ decision,” Dion said.

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.

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 for DPAs or 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.

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

‘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 was “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.

“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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