In testimony to the Justice Committee on Wednesday, Gerald Butts – the prime minister’s former principal secretary – raised more questions about who is telling the truth in the growing SNC-Lavalin scandal that’s currently engulfing the federal government.
Butts told the committee that to his knowledge, nobody from the Prime Minister’s Office put political pressure on ex-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to help SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal trial for bribery and corruption charges.
This stands in stark contrast to Wilson-Raybould’s version of events. She alleges such a coordinated effort involving the PMO, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, Butts and senior members of his staff was afoot for four months.
This effort said Wilson-Raybould, was to convince her to use the power of the attorney general to defer SNC-Lavalin’s prosecution to a financial penalty and court-ordered integrity audits.
Butts, however, disagreed.
“At no time did the Prime Minister or anyone in the government direct or ask the Attorney-General to negotiate a remediation agreement,” said Butts in his opening statement. “So it was and is the Attorney-General’s decision to make. It would, however, be Canadians’ decision to live with. Specifically, the 9000-plus people who could lose their jobs, as well as the many thousands more who work on the company’s supply chain.”
Last Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould testified at Justice committee that partisanship was part of the PMO’s SNC-Lavalin metric – notably the Québec provincial election last year and the upcoming federal election this year.
From Butts’ perspective, the economic consideration was “at the heart of the matter,” and it “deserves a robust and thoughtful response.”
SNC-Lavalin and two if its subsidiaries are awaiting trial for charges they bribed officials in Libya with $48 million between 2001 and 2011 to win contracts there. Without a deferred prosecution agreement, if convicted the company would be banned from bidding on federal contracts for 10 years. More than 10 times during Butts’ testimony he noted thousands of jobs at the Québec construction firm that could be at risk.
Architect of Trudeau’s political success and his top advisor, Butts resigned on February 21st amidst allegations that the PMO repeatedly attempted to pressure former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to defer bribery charges against SNC-Lavalin; allegations she made at committee last week.
Wilson-Raybould also testified that by September 16, 2018 she had determined “it was inappropriate for me to intervene.”
But Butts told the committee that he was unaware Wilson-Raybould had made her decision on the SNC-Lavalin matter as early as September and used this as justification for continued efforts by himself and others for her to take a second opinion.
“I learned for the first time while watching the former Attorney-General’s testimony that she had made a final decision on the 16th of September,” said Butts, who suggested during testimony that former Surpeme Court Justice Beverly McLachlin is a potential qualified candidate to provide it.
“In any case … our operating assumption (was) the decision was not made, and we were free to inform it with advice. In the end, (the decision) was the Attorney-General’s alone to make, and it would be for all of us to explain. Most importantly, it would be for many thousands of people to live with.”
Butts also suggested the 12 days Wilson-Raybould ruminated on the matter was insufficient, noting she received the Director of Public Prosecution decision not to negotiate a deal with SNC-Lavalin on September 4th.
Additionally, Butts questioned why she was still taking meetings on SNC-Lavalin – like their December 5, 2018 meeting over dinner at the Chateau Laurier hotel – if her mind was already made.
“If the Attorney-General had made a decision, and communicated it to the Prime Minister and Clerk, why would there be a next step at all?,” Butts said. “Why would the Attorney-General take and solicit meetings on a closed matter?”
It was at this December dinner meeting that Wilson-Raybould testified she told Butts of “the barrage of people hounding me and my staff” and that she “needed everyone to stop talking to me about SNC as I had made up my mind and the engagements were inappropriate.”
However Butts’ testimony contradicted these statements – asked whether he remembered Wilson-Raybould remarks about “the barrage” and for it to cease, Butts said he did not recall.
Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet five days after a February 7th Globe and Mail story originally reported on the allegations that she was shuffled into Veterans Affairs for not acquiescing to the PMO on SNC-Lavalin. During her testimony.
In Butts’ testimony to the Justice Committee, he reiterated Trudeau’s explanation for the shuffle – that the void then-Treasury Board president and Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison’s resignation precipitated what Butts’ viewed as “a simple plan for a small, tidy shuffle.”
“We did all we could to dissuade him (from resigning),” said Butts. “If there was no cabinet shuffle, Jody Wilson-Raybould would still be the Justice minister.”
Butts also told the committee that Wilson-Raybould ended up in Veterans Affairs because she refused to take on the Indigenous Services portfolio because it would involve enforcing the Indian Act.