OTTAWA — The Liberal-dominated House of Commons justice committee invited former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould Tuesday to testify about allegations of political interference involving SNC-Lavalin.
It's a surprising development from last week when the committee's Liberal members flexed their majority to quash opposition bids to call Wilson-Raybould to be a witness.
NDP MP Murray Rankin emerged from the in-camera meeting saying he's "deeply disappointed" the committee couldn't agree to call anyone from the Prime Minister's Office.
It's unclear if the former attorney general will be free to say much, he said, given concerns about solicitor-client privilege.
"She's coming to testify but we don't know whether she'll have both hands tied behind her back or simply one."
Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault read a statement to reporters following the meeting, saying the committee agreed to hear from eight witnesses.
"Canadians expect us to treat this matter seriously and fairly and to act with integrity," Boissonnault said, "That is what we are doing."
The Edmonton Centre MP sidestepped questions about why the motion lacked witnesses from the PMO. "Let's hear from Mrs. Jody Wilson-Raybould," he said.
Committee chair Anthony Housefather said he plans to make an effort to be neutral so that his colleagues "on all sides" can turn to him and expect a fair hearing.
"The more I join in the partisanship, the less effective I'll be as chair," he said, standing apart from Liberal colleagues.
The nature of the in-camera meeting seemed to sow confusion. Rankin stated a witness list of eight people was agreed upon, whereas Housefather said nine people would be heard from.
Listen to Anthony Housefather's "Follow-Up" interview on the SNC-Lavalin controversy:
The clerk of the committee said seven people are on his list of individuals: three academics, Wilson-Raybould, current Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti, Lametti's deputy Nathalie Drouin, and clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick.
Housefather's office confirmed nine witnesses will be invited, with five academics expected to testify.
The committee is expected to begin its study Wednesday, and continue hearing from witnesses until early next week. Housefather explained the academics will likely be first, educating committee members on the Shawcross doctrine — a set of rules to determine if an attorney general's independence has been violated.
Wilson-Raybould told reporters after a surprise attendance at Tuesday's cabinet meeting, that she is willing to appear as a committee witness, if invited.
She served as the country's justice minister and attorney general for over three years until mid-January when she was moved to veterans affairs. It is alleged, according to anonymous sourcing in the The Globe and Mail, that while she was attorney general the PMO pressured her to go lightly on Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
The company is a major employer in Quebec and is facing a 10-year ban on bidding on federal contracts related to its corruption case.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the allegations of political interference "false."
The Vancouver Granville MP has stayed tight lipped. Two weeks ago, she issued a statement saying that as the country's former attorney general "I am bound by solicitor-client privilege in this matter."
Three days later, she resigned from cabinet.
PM's right-hand man resigns
The controversy found new fuel Monday after Gerald Butts, Trudeau's principal secretary and best friend, announced his resignation. In a statement, the prime minister's longtime confidant categorically denied the accusation that he or anyone else in the prime minister's "pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that Wilson-Raybould had asked to speak to cabinet Tuesday morning. The group huddled for four hours. The former AG would only say she had made herself available to answer any questions.
Cabinet ministers were more dismissive of the controversy. Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale publicly rebuked the Globe and Mail story, calling the allegations of political interference untrue.
Bill Morneau reacts to Gerald Butts resignation. Says he thinks it's appropriate that Butts chose to "defend himself against people staying things that just aren't true" #cdnpoli https://t.co/K8ioaMXyq1 pic.twitter.com/6smhycp6x8— Zi-Ann Lum (@ziannlum) February 19, 2019
Infrastructure Minister Francois Philippe Champagne said there's a general consensus that everyone wants "to shed some lights on the recent events."
"I'm very happy personally that the ethics commissioner which is impartial and independent has taken the task to bring the light to that," he said.
On top of the justice committee study, federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is also conducting his own examination to find out of someone's private interests were furthered.
The Senate has also tabled a motion for its legal and constitutional affairs committee to examine the same controversy and report on the "serious and disturbing allegations" of political interference.
Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith proposed 10 people for the initial witness list, including Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau, and Butts.
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