Trudeau’s Ex-Attorney General: ‘Veiled Threats’ Were Made to Drop Case
OTTAWA — Breaking weeks of silence, the former cabinet minister now at the center of a growing political crisis in Canada testified that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his staff and senior officials used “political interference” and “veiled threats” in a campaign to get her to drop a criminal case against a major corporation.
In testimony to a House of Commons committee examining the prime minister’s actions, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister and attorney general, recalled asking Mr. Trudeau: “Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the A.G.? I would strongly advise against it.”
As she described 10 meetings, 10 conversations and a series of emails about the criminal case with senior government officials, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said that during one particularly fractious session she had “thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre,” a reference to President Richard Nixon’s orders to Elliot Richardson, his attorney general, to fire Archibold Cox, an independent prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
The often inflammatory and defiant testimony from Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who remains a Liberal member of Parliament, is likely to provide ample fuel for opposition politicians as campaigning for the general election in October gears up.
Shortly after Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s four hours of testimony ended, Andrew Scheer, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, called on Mr. Trudeau to resign immediately. He also called on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to open an obstruction of justice investigation.
“The people Canadians entrusted to protect the integrity of our very nation instead only protected themselves,” Mr. Scheer said.
But with no smoking gun in her testimony — Ms. Wilson-Raybould acknowledged during questioning that no one in the government ever instructed her to order prosecutors to reach a settlement — the damage to Mr. Trudeau may ultimately be contained. In the short term, however, the testimony has put his government firmly into damage control mode.
The case, which has erupted into the biggest crisis of Mr. Trudeau’s political career, began on Feb. 7, when The Globe and Mail reported, citing anonymous sources, that the prime minister and his aides had improperly pressed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to seek a settlement of criminal charges against a leading Canadian company.
SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering and construction company, was accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes to officials in Libya while the country was ruled by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
A criminal conviction would leave the company, which is one of Quebec’s most prominent corporations with 52,000 employees worldwide, unable to do business with the government of Canada for a decade.
Several Quebec politicians, including Premier François Legault, feared that the resulting financial blow to the company would leave it vulnerable to a foreign takeover. They have been pushing for a settlement under a new law that would keep SNC-Lavalin out of court in exchange for paying a substantial fine.
For all the alleged pressure to end the criminal case, prosecutors, who are supposed to be independent of politics in Canada, have formally told SNC-Lavalin that they will not consider a settlement.
Over the last three weeks, Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly insisted that neither he nor anyone else acted improperly when discussing the case with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, whose testimony marked the first time that anyone involved in the affair had made allegations on the record that the prime minister and his inner circle were involved in trying to sway her actions.
On Wednesday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould acknowledged that it was appropriate for the prime minister and others to raise concerns about the effect on the company, on Canadian jobs and on Quebec if the criminal case continued.
But, she added, the prime minister and others should not have raised the political ramifications of the case, nor should they have continued to press her on the matter for more than four months.
“There was a concerted and sustained effort to politically influence my role as attorney general,” she told the Commons justice committee. She added, however, that the pressure ultimately had no effect on the independence of the judicial system.
During a meeting in September, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said that Mr. Trudeau raised the potential effects of the continued prosecution on a provincial election underway in Quebec and its potential affects on federal politicians from the province, noting that he represented a constituency in Montreal.
“I was quite taken aback,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould recalled, and said that she then asked Mr. Trudeau if he was trying to interfere with a criminal case.
“The prime minister said: ‘No, No, No. We just need to find a solution,’” she said.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, a former prosecutor in Vancouver and the country’s first Indigenous justice minister, was moved out of the justice job and into veterans affairs, a less prominent ministerial position, in January.
While it has been widely suggested over the last three weeks that the change was intended as punishment, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said on Wednesday that Mr. Trudeau had insisted to her that was not the case, “and I decided I would take the prime minister at his word.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould quit the cabinet entirely in February. She repeatedly declined to explain why she stepped down beyond saying: “I did not have confidence to sit around the table, the cabinet table.”
She is not the only person to step down this month. Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s longtime friend, quit as Mr. Trudeau’s top political adviser. Like Mr. Trudeau, he strongly rejected allegations that he did anything improper regarding the SNC-Lavalin case.
Adam Dodek, a professor of legal ethics and constitutional law at the University of Ottawa, said that the tradition of combining the jobs of justice minister and attorney general in Canada made the current conflict “almost inevitable.”
In Britain, which provided the model for most of Canada’s institutions, the attorney general attends cabinet meetings to give legal advice but is not a member of the cabinet, shielding the role from politics, he said.
On top of that, Professor Dodek said, the guidelines intended to keep politics out of prosecutions are vague and open to a wide array of interpretations.
“We’re seeing very smart, knowledgeable people disagreeing,” he said.