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In a scathing rebuke, ethics commissioner Mario Dion detailed how he fought to access confidential information but was denied by the Privy Council Office
Canada’s ethics watchdog says he was hampered in his investigation of the SNC-Lavalin affair by a decision of senior government officials to withhold information relevant to the case.
In a scathing rebuke near the beginning of his 63-page report, released Wednesday morning, ethics commissioner Mario Dion detailed how he fought to access confidential information related to the affair, but was denied by the Privy Council Office — one of the offices involved in the scandal he was investigating.
“Decisions that affect my jurisdiction under the Act, by setting parameters on my ability to receive evidence, should be made transparently and democratically by Parliament, not by the very same public office holders who are subject to the regime I administer,” Dion wrote. “I am convinced that if our Office is to remain truly independent and fulfill its purpose, I must have unfettered access to all information that could be relevant to the exercise of my mandate.”
Dion’s report concluded that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by using his authority over former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to urge her to help Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution. It supports allegations made by Wilson-Raybould that the prime minister and other senior officials improperly pressured her over a period of several months in 2018.
Dion wrote that he was able to gather enough information to draw conclusions on the matter. “Because of my inability to access all Cabinet confidences related to the matter I must, however, report that I was unable to fully discharge the investigatory duties conferred upon me by the Act,” he wrote.
Dion launched his investigation on Feb. 8, 2019, a day after the Globe and Mail first reported allegations that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office had pressured Wilson-Raybould to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin. According to the report, his office received written submissions from 14 witnesses and conducted interviews with six of them, including Wilson-Raybould, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and former privy council clerk Michael Wernick. He also interviewed and received written submissions from Trudeau.
However, Dion wrote, nine witnesses told the office they had information about the affair they could not reveal, as they were Cabinet confidences. In response, Dion instructed his lawyers to request that the Privy Council Office (PCO) allow witnesses to provide all of their evidence. “Despite several weeks of discussions, the offices remained at an impasse over access to Cabinet confidences,” he wrote.
Dion raised the issue with Trudeau directly during his interview on May 3. Trudeau’s lawyers said he would consult with the PCO, but the issue remained unresolved.
On May 28, Dion wrote to Ian Shugart, who replaced Wernick as PCO clerk after Wernick’s resignation in March. He argued that his office should be able to access Cabinet confidences, though it would not be allowed to make that information public. On June 13, Shugart denied the request. Trudeau’s legal counsel told Dion’s office the decision was made by the PCO without the prime minister’s involvement.
“Because of the decisions to deny our office further access to Cabinet confidences, witnesses were constrained in their ability to provide all evidence,” Dion wrote. “I was, therefore, prevented from looking over the entire body of evidence to determine its relevance to my examination.”
Despite these limitations, Dion found that Trudeau, “directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms. Wilson-Raybould” after she made clear that she would not overrule the decision of the director of public prosecutions not to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin. The company is charged with offering Libyan government officials $48 million in bribes between 2001 and 2011, and would face a 10-year ban on federal contracts if convicted. SNC-Lavalin has been lobbying for a remediation agreement, which would circumvent a criminal trial, arguing that all senior officials involved with the alleged crimes have been dismissed.
The federal government introduced remediation agreements as part of the 2018 budget, and this is the first case where one might have been used. The agreements are intended to hold companies accountable for economic crimes without making innocent employees suffer the consequences.
In his submissions to the ethics commissioner, Trudeau wrote that he was concerned about the impact of a criminal conviction on SNC-Lavalin’s employees, pensioners and customers. He was also concerned about how to justify the decision to the Canadian public.
But Dion found that Wilson-Raybould was improperly asked to consider partisan political interests as well, “contrary to longstanding constitutional principles relating to prosecutorial independence and the rule of law.”
Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her role as attorney general in January, and resigned from cabinet after the allegations were made public the following month. The scandal, which played out through the spring, also saw the resignation of Wernick and Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts. Former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott also resigned from cabinet in solidarity with Wilson-Raybould. Trudeau ejected both former ministers from the Liberal caucus in April. They are now running as independent candidates in the October election.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019