POLITICS
02/13/2019 16:09 EST | Updated 02/14/2019 13:06 EST

Liberals Thwart Bids To Bring Jody Wilson-Raybould, Top PMO Aides To Justice Committee On SNC-Lavalin

The justice committee held an emergency meeting.

The Liberal-dominated House of Commons justice committee voted down opposition bids Wednesday to hear from the former attorney general and key members of the Prime Minister's Office on the escalating SNC-Lavalin controversy.

Instead, Liberal MPs chose to study some of the legal issues at the heart of the matter.

The committee held an emergency meeting in Ottawa to debate a motion from three Tory MPs and one New Democrat to have Jody Wilson-Raybould and other high-ranking officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff and principal secretary, testify on the matter.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen said the shift in focus, to hold hearings without calling ministers and key officials to testify, didn't surprise him. He's holding onto a shred of optimism that future study will explore the facts behind the controversy.

"But it's very small having watched them batten down the hatches today and just not allow any truth to come to light," he told reporters after the meeting.

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt said she found the meeting "very disappointing." Like Cullen, she's dismayed the committee won't hear from key witnesses — Wilson-Raybould in particular.

"Her reputation has been dragged through the mud. The Liberal mud for the last two weeks. And quite frankly I want to hear from her so she can clear her name."

The request was made after The Globe and Mail alleged Wilson-Raybould faced pressure from the PMO to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin. Such a deal would allow the Quebec engineering giant, facing charges of corruption involving government contracts in Libya, to pay financial penalties but avoid the risk of a conviction.

Watch: Trudeau says he's 'surprised and disappointed' by Wilson-Raybould's resignation

But Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault kicked things off with an alternative idea for the committee to examine such deals, also known as deferred prosecution agreements, next week.

Boissonnault's motion invited Justice Minister David Lametti, Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick and the deputy minister of justice to testify. It left off Wilson-Raybould, the prime minister's chief of staff Katie Telford, and Trudeau's principal secretary Gerald Butts from the witness list.

Committee chair Anthony Housefather said the proposed witnesses could also testify on the Shawcross Doctrine, the rules by which the attorney general keeps law enforcement and politics separate. He suggested more witnesses could be added to the mix.

It passed by a vote of five to four.

Tories warn of 'cover-up'

The meeting was held one day after Wilson-Raybould resigned as veterans affairs minister, a decision that Trudeau said left him "surprised and disappointed." Trudeau has denied anyone from his office directed Wilson-Raybould on the matter and said that his former minister should have told him if she felt undue pressure.

Wilson-Raybould has said she can't talk publicly about the matter because of solicitor-client privilege. She revealed in her resignation letter Tuesday that she has tapped former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell to advise her on what she is "legally permitted to discuss in this matter.''

Earlier Wednesday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that any rejection or "watering down" of the opposition motion at committee would amount to a cover-up.

Tory MP Michael Cooper, vice-chair of the committee, accused his Liberal colleagues several times throughout a meeting of more than two hours of trying to cover up a scandal.

We don't have the tools, we don't have the budget, we don't have the mechanisms to go through the fishing expedition and the kind of witch hunt that the Conservatives would like to see.Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault

Boissonnault noted that federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion has already launched his own investigation into the matter, specifically whether there's been a violation of the Conflict of Interest Act.

The role of the justice committee is "not an investigative body," he said, and comments from Tory MPs have shown House committees are "political theatre" that occasionally produce good studies.

"We don't have the tools, we don't have the budget, we don't have the mechanisms to go through the fishing expedition and the kind of witch hunt that the Conservatives would like to see," he said.

Cullen told the group that the power of the committee to examine the SNC-Lavalin affair is substantial and that Canadians want to hear from Wilson-Raybould.

The justice committee is not a "sophisticated legal book club," he said.

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Rival MPs also clashed over the Conservative Party's decision to advertise the office phone numbers of the Liberal MPs on the committee ahead of the meeting.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid said the move amounted to "bullying" and political posturing. Cullen also suggested Tories crossed the line.

With files from Zi-Ann Lum, The Canadian Press