POLITICS
05/08/2019 18:28 EDT | Updated 05/09/2019 17:07 EDT

Explainer: Why The Mark Norman Saga Isn’t Quite Over Yet

The vice-admiral says has “an important story” still yet to share.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Vice Admiral Mark Norman reacts during a press conference in Ottawa on May 8, 2019.

OTTAWA — Vice-Admiral Mark Norman says he has an "important story to tell Canadians" in the coming days after federal prosecutors stayed their criminal case against him.

"Not to lay blame, but to ensure that we all learn from this experience," Norman told reporters Wednesday during a press conference at a downtown Navy officers' mess.

Watch: Defence minister says taxpayers will foot Mark Norman's legal bill

The military's former second-in-command faced a breach-of-trust charge related to a leaked cabinet decision to delay the signing of a sole-sourced contract to retrofit a Navy ship with Quebec-based Chantier Davie.

Norman's trial, which was scheduled to begin in mid-August, was poised to become a political headache for Liberals ahead of this fall's election.

Here's a brief explainer of the complex case.

How did it start?

Shortly after the Liberals won a majority government, cabinet held a meeting on Nov. 19, 2015 to discuss a shipbuilding contract negotiated under the previous Conservative government.

Cabinet decided that the sole-sourced contract, initially given to Davie, merited additional review. Cabinet decided to pause the Davie contract until more consultations with competitors could be done.

News of that decision was leaked to CBC News the next day, triggering an RCMP investigation into the source of the disclosure that eventually produced evidence to draw a circle around Norman's name.

Fred Chartrand/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference with his cabinet after they were sworn-in at Rideau Hall on Nov. 4, 2015. Weeks later, details of a cabinet decision regarding a shipbuilding deal was leaked to media.

The CBC News reporter who broke the story was hired by the government in January 2016 to be a "senior policy advisor" to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. He has since left the department.

General Johnathan Vance issued a notice in January 2017 suspending Vice-Admiral Norman from his duties "effective immediately."

Before Norman was charged, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised eyebrows by saying the investigation would "inevitably" spark "court processes."

Norman was charged with breach of trust in March 2018.

What's the big deal about this case?

The trial was set to begin in August, and continue throughout the election campaign.

The possibility of star witnesses, including former Treasury Board president Scott Brison, Liberal MP Andrew Leslie, and former Conservative defence minister Peter MacKay being called to testify would have ensured more attention over the case.

Adrian Wyld/CP
Scott Brison is given a standing ovation during his farewell speech in the House of Commons on Feb. 6, 2019 in Ottawa.

Brison, then the senior cabinet minister from Nova Scotia, was accused of political interference by Norman's lawyers because of his personal ties to the Irving family. Nova Scotia-based Irving Shipbuilding is the second largest shipbuilder in the country after Chantier Davie.

Leslie announced last week that he won't run for re-election. The retired lieutenant-general had offered to testify for Norman at the trial. He arrived at the Ottawa courthouse Wednesday before Norman's court appearance to offer his support.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Liberal MP Andrew Leslie shakes hands with Vice Admiral Mark Norman as he arrives to court in Ottawa on May 8, 2019.

MacKay's name appeared on the Crown's list of potential witnesses because the contract was negotiated under the previous Conservative government.

The trial was set to begin in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin affair, which consumed the political news cycle in February and March.

That affair caused significant collateral damage for the Liberal government, including the resignation of high-profile cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott — and their subsequent removal from caucus.

It also affected poll numbers for the Liberals and Trudeau.

Why was the case dropped?

The National Post broke the news Tuesday evening that the high-profile criminal case against Norman would be dropped.

In court Wednesday, lead prosecutor Barbara Mercier offered a cursory explanation for the sudden shift. The defence team, she said, came forward with "a volume of information" for their review and counsel met on March 28 to discuss the new evidence.

"This new information definitely provided greater context to the conduct of Vice-Admiral Norman and it revealed a number of complexities in the process that we were not aware of."

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Crown Prosecutor Barbara Mercier talks to reporters as she leaves court in Ottawa following a decision on Vice-Admiral Mark Norman on May 8, 2019.

Mercier said it was in the Crown's view that some of Norman's actions were "secretive and inappropriate," but not criminal. She explained the charge was being stayed because there was no longer a reasonable prospect for conviction.

She emphasized the independence of the director of public prosecutions in the decision.

"There was no orchestration of this charge or of this case by anyone. There was no interference whatsoever in the [Public Prosecution Service of Canada] decision to commence this prosecution or in our decision to end it today."

Norman's lawyer Marie Henein later told reporters at a news conference that the documents provided in late March by her "all-female team" on this case included extensive interviews and their own investigation report. "Fortunately the vice-admiral didn't fire the females that he hired."

Prosecutors moved in a "very responsive manner" to the evidence, Henein said.

Why are parallels being drawn to SNC-Lavalin?

The common denominator between the Norman case and the SNC-Lavalin affair are that both involve allegations of political interference in prosecutorial independence.

In the SNC-Lavalin case, it was alleged that officials in the Prime Minister's Office attempted to sway Wilson-Raybould, when she was attorney general, to intervene in a prosecutorial case involving the Montreal-based engineering giant.

Months of debate ensued between the government and the opposition over Wilson-Raybould's claim that that she faced "veiled threats" and improper pressure to go easy on SNC-Lavalin.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Independent MPs Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould vote in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 9, 2019.

In the Norman case, the allegation of political interference is around the disclosure of sensitive documents. His legal team asked for a waiver of cabinet confidence to have access to government documents related to the case.

The government did not grant the waiver and did not evoke privilege, instead left it to the judge to decide what documents were permissible for release to Norman's legal team.

Henein called the government's slow pace in disclosing documents related to the case "concerning."

Watch: Norman's lawyer, Marie Henein, praises prosecutors' decision

When asked to explain the similarities between SNC-Lavalin and the Norman case, she said in both examples you see "people that are involved in the justice system resist any sort of external inappropriate influences; that we know that the justice system has to stand apart and be entirely insulated from any other sorts of considerations."

The resulting decision was "unimpacted from any political considerations," Henein said. It's time for the prime minister to apologize to Norman, she added.

She lauded the prosecutors and judges involved in the Norman case for "acting independently" of politics and called judicial independence "a value that is very much worth fighting for."

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Vice-Admiral Mark Norman sits with his lawyer Marie Henein at a press conference in Ottawa on May 8, 2019.

According to Justice Heather Perkins-McVey, the latest batch of documents arrived at her desk Tuesday. She was in the process of sorting through them ahead of a scheduled appearance this week before prosecutors decided to stay the criminal charge.

The sensitive government documents that have been released to Norman's legal team are unlikely to be made public.

What's next?

Norman is expected to share his side of the story in the coming days. Opposition parties, however, have not wasted time making partisan attacks against the government.

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer suggested it was suspicious for the prime minister to be absent from question period Wednesday — a day in which Trudeau usually regularly attends and fields all questions from across the aisle.

The subject dominated question period with the opposition claiming the Norman case is an example of a cover-up, a line of attack used frequently in Tory attacks on the SNC-Lavalin affair.

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"The Liberal government obstructed the legal process, sat on the evidence Vice-Admiral Norman needed to defend his case," said Tory defence critic James Bezan. "They dragged his good name through the mud, drove him into near-bankruptcy, and refused to turn over evidence to the court."

Justice Minister David Lametti disagreed and reiterated the independence of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. He said that it took some time, but the Justice Department cooperated with the court to produce "thousands" of requested third-party documents.

Norman said he is keen to get back to work, but it's unclear if he will return to his former job as the military's second-in-command.

Despite the spiritual and financial costs incurred since his January 2017 suspension, the vice-admiral said he has the "utmost confidence in the judicial process."

The alarming and protracted bias of perceived guilt across the senior levels of government has been quite damaging.Vice-Admiral Mark Norman

Sajjan announced Wednesday that the government would foot Norman's legal bills, estimated to be at least half a million dollars.

Norman said while the process has emboldened his trust in the justice system, it has been shaken in other ways. "The alarming and protracted bias of perceived guilt across the senior levels of government has been quite damaging," he said.

The vice-admiral, who was praised inside the courtroom by his lawyer for sitting silently and patiently through a "profoundly painful time," briefly lost his composure in front of reporters. He was asked to recall what the most difficult part of the whole process has been for him.

Norman said that while the impact on his family has been hard, he was buoyed by letters and donations from World War II veterans giving him $5 to help with his legal fees.

He called the gesture from veterans both emotional and inspiring.