Federal Conservatives and New Democrats are forcing an emergency meeting of the House of Commons justice committee over allegations the Prime Minister's Office pressured the former attorney general to help a major Quebec company avoid criminal prosecution.
The accusations stem from a bombshell report from The Globe and Mail Thursday. The Globe quoted sources saying that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office leaned on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to help SNC-Lavalin duck fraud and corruption prosecution with a remedial agreement. The Montreal-based engineering and construction giant is accused of paying bribes for government contracts in Libya.
Trudeau told reporters that the allegations are "false." He said Wilson-Raybould, who was shuffled to veterans affairs last month, was "never directed by me" or anyone in his office to "take a decision" on the matter. He closely stuck to that line when further asked if his office applied pressure or influence on the minister.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer raised the stakes Friday, calling the allegations "unprecedented."
"Having officials in Justin Trudeau's office exerting pressure, attempting to influence an independent criminal proceeding — that strikes to the very core of our independent system of justice, the rule of law, and a fundamental tenet of our democracy," he said.
The justice committee is dominated by Liberal MPs, including its chair, Anthony Housefather. If the Liberals flex their majority to vote down the Conservative-NDP request, Scheer said it would then be "quite clear that there is a cover up going on."
Sometimes silence can speak louder than words.Tory Leader Andrew Scheer
Scheer also said alternative legal options are being explored if the Liberals refuse to be "forthcoming" about the claim of political interference levied against Trudeau's office.
Wilson-Raybould repeatedly told reporters Thursday that she has "no comment" on the explosive allegations. The Tory leader claimed the former justice minister's reluctance to deny the claims is telling.
"Sometimes silence can speak louder than words," he said.
Wilson-Raybould issued a statement Friday saying she's bound by ethical duty and can't comment on the allegations.
"As the former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, I am bound by solicitor-client privilege in this matter."
In a later release from his party, Scheer said "members of Parliament, and all other relevant authorities, have a responsibility to determine what happened here, and both Trudeau and his officials must be forthcoming."
Group wants to hear from Wilson-Raybould, key Trudeau advisers
The release stated three Tory MPs on the justice committee — Michael Barrett, Dave MacKenzie and Michael Cooper — and NDP MP Murray Rankin sent letters to the clerk seeking a vote on a motion calling for "no fewer than four meetings" to study the situation.
The group wants to hear from Wilson-Raybould, her successor as justice minister David Lametti, and several people in Trudeau's inner circle: chief of staff Katie Telford, principal secretary Gerald Butts, and senior advisors Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques.
Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, Director of Public Prosecutions Kathleen Roussel, and Jessica Prince, chief of staff to the veterans affairs minister, have also been requested to appear as witnesses.
"If the prime minister has nothing to hide, then members of his government should have no reason to oppose these officials from testifying," he said in the release.
The opposition parties say a committee report should be delivered to the House by Feb. 28.
Wilson-Raybould's 'truth to power' statement in focus
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has also called for the federal ethics commissioner to launch an investigation.
"Given the prime minister's response, if he truly wants to clear this up and believes there's been no wrongdoing, he should welcome an investigation from the ethics commissioner. ... Tell us what happened, be transparent, invite the ethics commissioner to investigate and tell us that this is not the case or, if it is the case, then there's a serious reckoning that needs to happen," he told The Canadian Press.
A corruption conviction could bar SNC-Lavalin from being awarded lucrative federal contracts for five to 10 years — an outcome that could lead to layoffs.
The company called for a remediation agreement — deals struck when a company admits wrongdoing and pays financial penalties — after it was charged by the RCMP in 2015. The company lobbied government officials, including those in the PMO.
In the 2018 federal budget, a Criminal Code amendment was included to allow such agreements to be negotiated in cases of corporate crime.
In October, Roussel, the director of public prosecutions, told SNC-Lavalin that negotiating such an arrangement would be inappropriate. Wilson-Raybould was demoted to veterans affairs minister three months later.
Hours after the shuffle, she released a statement saying that the role of attorney general must be free from "even the perception of political interference" and involves speaking "truth to power."
The motion calling for the emergency meeting quotes Wilson-Raybould's statement directly that "it is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference and uphold the highest level of public confidence."
"But then I remembered that she is more than able to defend herself. History will prove that she did the right thing. Her DEMOTION makes sense now, UGLY POLITICAL SENSE," he wrote.
With files from The Canadian Press