OTTAWA — Canada's top bureaucrat launched a blunt and vigorous defence Thursday of the government's handling of the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, declaring allegations of political interference to be false and even defamatory.
Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council, took opposition MPs to task for jumping on the anonymously-sourced allegations to accuse the government of obstructing justice.
He challenged former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould's assertion that solicitor-client privilege prevents her from responding to the allegations that she was improperly pressured by the Prime Minister's Office to spare the Montreal engineering giant a criminal trial on charges of corruption and bribery related to government contracts in Libya.
Watch: Trudeau responds to calls for inquiry into SNC-Lavalin controversy
Wernick was testifying during the first round of hearings by the House of Commons justice committee into the affair that has rocked the Liberal government, resulting in Wilson-Raybould's resignation from cabinet last week and the departure of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, earlier this week.
The allegations first surfaced in a Globe and Mail report two weeks ago, citing unnamed sources.
"I'm here to say to you that the Globe and Mail article contains errors, unfounded speculation and, in some cases, is simply defamatory," Wernick told the committee.
From everything he knows, Wernick said the Prime Minister's Office handled the matter with integrity. There was vigorous debate internally about whether Wilson-Raybould should exercise a legal option to instruct the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin. That agreement is a kind of plea bargain in which the company would pay restitution but not get a criminal conviction that could financially cripple the company by barring it from bidding on government contracts.
Wernick said those discussions were perfectly legal and didn't cross the line into improper pressure on the attorney general, whom he noted was repeatedly assured by Trudeau that a final decision on the matter was hers alone.
PM said Wilson-Raybould was the 'decider': Wernick
"We are discussing lawful advocacy that the minister take a lawful decision which in the end she did not take," he told the committee.
Wernick noted that he's not a lawyer. But based on his many years experience as a senior bureaucrat under multiple Liberal and Conservative governments, he said he doesn't believe solicitor-client privilege stops Wilson-Raybould from telling her side of the story.
He said he doesn't see where she was acting as a solicitor and that the matter was never discussed in cabinet so she wasn't giving advice to cabinet either.
"The prime minister said at every occasion verbally and in writing that she was the decider so she was not giving legal advice to the prime minister," he said.
"She was the decider, the full and final decider. She can't be the fettered solicitor and the battered decider, (as portrayed) in that horrible, vile cartoon at the same time. It's one or the other."
Earlier Thursday, Justice Minister David Lametti also told the committee it was appropriate for the Prime Minister's Office to discuss the matter with Wilson-Raybould.
Lametti, who took over the justice and attorney general roles from Wilson-Raybould in a cabinet shuffle in early January, said the attorney general "is not an island" who can't talk to cabinet colleagues or government officials before making a decision about a prosecution — provided that the final decision is the attorney general's alone.
Lametti, who is advising Trudeau about whether he can waive solicitor-client privilege in the issue, also told the committee that privilege does not "inherently" apply to conversations an attorney general has with officials or cabinet colleagues. It applies strictly to instances when an attorney general, as the government's chief lawyer, gives legal advice to the government.
Wilson-Raybould wants to speak her 'truth'
Speaking in Halifax earlier Thursday, Trudeau said he remains puzzled by Wilson-Raybould's resignation from cabinet despite her explanations this week behind closed doors to cabinet ministers and the Liberal caucus.
"This is not a decision that remains clear to me," Trudeau said to reporters in Halifax this morning.
After Wilson-Raybould spoke to cabinet Tuesday and the Liberals dropped objections to calling her as a witness at the justice committee, speculation grew that Trudeau and his former star minister had come to some sort of agreement about what had taken place, but given the prime minister's comments today that may not be the case.
Wilson-Raybould said Wednesday she would like to tell "my truth" on the matter but it's not her decision whether to waive privilege and cabinet confidentiality.
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