Canada’s Top Public Servant Is Fourth Official to Resign in Political Scandal
OTTAWA — Canada’s top public servant, who was accused of improperly pressing the former attorney general to settle a corruption case involving a major corporation, resigned on Monday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to put more than a month of political turmoil behind him.
It was the fourth prominent resignation related to the scandal since last month.
In parliamentary testimony, Jody Wilson-Raybould, who stepped down as justice minister and attorney general, had singled out Michael Wernick, the public servant, for making what she called “veiled threats” to steer her toward using a new law to impose a hefty financial penalty, rather than a criminal conviction, on SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal company accused of bribery in Libya.
A criminal conviction would have barred the company from government work for a decade, which led Mr. Trudeau and others to fear the loss of Canadian jobs.
Mr. Wernick, a career public servant whose role as clerk of the Privy Council is supposed to be impartial and nonpartisan, denied acting improperly or making threats in his own testimony in front of Parliament. Public appearances by the clerk are rare, and past clerks have generally being guarded and careful in their comments, as it is their job to ensure that government workers carry out the laws passed by politicians.
But Mr. Wernick’s two appearances to discuss SNC-Lavalin before a parliamentary committee were anything but that.
In the first round, Mr. Wernick lectured committee members about what he sees as overheated political rhetoric in the country.
“I worry about the rising tide of incitements to violence when people use terms like ‘treason’ and ‘traitor’ in open discourse,” he said, referring to terms used on social media by some critics of Mr. Trudeau’s actions in the SNC-Lavalin affair. “Those are words that lead to assassination. I’m worried that somebody is going to be shot in this country this year during the political campaign.”
[Read more about how Justin Trudeau was ensnared by the SNC-Lavalin scandal]
Opposition politicians said afterward that Mr. Wernick’s actions involving Ms. Wilson-Raybould and his comments about the political state of the nation were improper for a public servant in any position. One member of the New Democratic Party, Charlie Angus, asked Mr. Trudeau in a letter to demand Mr. Wernick resign.
It had been expected that Mr. Wernick, who has been in the public service for 38 years, would retire soon after the federal election in October. But in his resignation letter to Mr. Trudeau on Monday, he said that “recent events have led me to conclude that I cannot serve as clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to cabinet during the upcoming election campaign,” and “it is now apparent that there is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the opposition parties.”
The clerk is a key figure in the transition if the government changes hands during an election. Mr. Wernick was also recently appointed to a group tasked with looking for signs of foreign interference in the coming campaign.
It was not clear when Mr. Wernick’s retirement will take effect, but the chief public servant in the department of international affairs was named as his replacement.
In addition to Mr. Wernick and Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Gerald Butts, Mr. Trudeau’s close friend, stepped down as the prime minister’s top political aide. Jane Philpott, another cabinet minister, resigned in solidarity with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, although the two former ministers are still sitting as Liberals in Parliament.
Early on Monday, Mr. Trudeau named Joyce Murray, a longtime Liberal member of Parliament from British Columbia, to replace Ms. Philpott as president of the Treasury Board.
Both Mr. Butts and Mr. Trudeau have insisted that their requests, and those of others, that Ms. Wilson-Raybould look into the possibility of a settlement were neither excessive nor improper. In the end, she did not order prosecutors to seek a settlement, and the company is still going to court.
The justice part of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s old job was clearly political. But her decisions as attorney general were supposed to be made without political considerations in mind.
Some countries, notably Britain, separate the two roles for that reason.
Before Mr. Wernick quit on Monday, Mr. Trudeau announced that Anne McLellan, who served as justice minister and attorney general in another Liberal government from 1997 to 2002, would review the dual post and make recommendations by the end of June.