OTTAWA — Jody Wilson-Raybould finally gets the chance today to “speak her truth” about the SNC-Lavalin affair, breaking a three-week silence that has fuelled a controversy based, so far, strictly on anonymous allegations of political interference in the justice system.
But the former attorney general is already warning that her hotly anticipated testimony before the House of Commons justice committee won’t tell the whole the story because, she claims, an unprecedented order-in-council waiving solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality doesn’t go far enough to let her speak freely.
The waiver “is a step in the right direction,” she wrote the committee Tuesday, but it “falls short of what is required.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued the waiver Monday. It covers Wilson-Raybould’s time as justice minister and attorney general — the post she held when his office is alleged to have exerted improper pressure on her last fall to halt the criminal prosecution of Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin on charges of corruption and bribery related to government contracts in Libya.
Wilson-Raybould has cited solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality repeatedly over the past three weeks to refuse comment on the allegation.
But she now says she needs those restrictions waived not just for the time when she was attorney general, but also for anything that was said or done after she was shuffled on Jan. 14 to the veterans affairs post, including her eventual resignation from cabinet a month later and her presentation to cabinet last week about her reasons for resigning.
“I mention this simply to alert the committee to the fact that the order-in-council leaves in place whatever restraints there are on my ability to speak freely about matters that occurred after I left the post of attorney general,” she told the committee.
She did not explain why events that occurred after she was no longer in a position to do anything about the SNC-Lavalin prosecution would be relevant.
But Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt has speculated that it may have been only after Wilson-Raybould was demoted to veterans affairs that she realized she was being punished for refusing to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin, a kind of plea bargain that would require the company to pay restitution but avoid the potentially financially crippling impact of a criminal conviction.
Any questioning of Wilson-Raybould along those lines will presumably lead nowhere today. Nevertheless, Wilson-Raybould’s testimony — including a 30-minute opening statement she requested, but complained Tuesday won’t be sufficient time to provide a “full, complete version of event” — should finally provide some details about precisely what the former minister may have deemed improper pressure.
Last week, Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick told the committee that, in his view, everyone in the Prime Minister’s Office conducted themselves with “the highest standards of integrity,” that no inappropriate pressure was put on Wilson-Raybould and that Trudeau repeatedly assured her the decision on the SNC-Lavalin prosecution was hers alone.
He acknowledged, however, that the former minister might have a different interpretation of events and predicted she will zero in on three in particular:
— A Sept. 17 meeting with Trudeau and Wernick, which the clerk said was primarily focused on the stalled Indigenous rights agenda, over which he said Wilson-Raybould had “a very serious policy difference” with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and other ministers. During that meeting, held two weeks after the director of public prosecutions had ruled out a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin, Wernick said Wilson-Raybould informed the prime minister that she had “no intention of intervening” in the matter, although as attorney general she was legally entitled to give direction to the public prosecutor.
— A Dec. 18 meeting of Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, and principal secretary, Gerald Butts, with Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff, Jessica Prince. Wernick was not present at that meeting and offered no details.
— A Dec. 19 conversation Wernick had with Wilson-Raybould in which he told her Trudeau and other ministers were “quite anxious” about the potential impact of a criminal conviction on the financial viability of SNC-Lavalin and on innocent employees, shareholders, pensioners and third-party suppliers who would suffer as a result. Wernick said he was informing the minister of “context” surrounding her decision on the company but insisted it was not inappropriate pressure.
Wilson-Raybould is also likely to provide her version of a Dec. 5 dinner with Butts, who resigned last week. Butts has confirmed Wilson-Raybould raised the SNC-Lavalin matter briefly and he advised her to speak to Wernick. Butts has insisted that at no time did he apply improper pressure on the former minister.
The waiver given to Wilson-Raybould to speak about her time as attorney general also applies to others in government with whom she spoke about the SNC-Lavalin prosecution. That would allow Butts and other PMO staffers to testify freely if called upon.
So far, the Liberal majority on the justice committee has balked at calling staffers as witnesses, but it may reconsider after hearing from Wilson-Raybould.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press