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The Latest: Butts, Wernick testify at justice committee on SNC-Lavalin affair

Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, prepares to appear before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights regarding the SNC Lavalin Affair, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
March 06, 2019 - 1:30 PM

OTTAWA - The latest developments at the House of Commons justice committee, holding hearings Wednesday on the SNC-Lavalin affair (all times local):

4:14 p.m.

The Commons justice committee suspended for a few minutes to let the country's top civil servant, Michael Wernick, and the top official at the Justice Department, Nathalie Drouin, exit the room.

The two testified for more than two hours Wednesday to respond to the testimony former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould gave one week ago, in which she accused Wernick of trying to pressure her into providing SNC-Lavalin a remediation agreement to avoid criminal prosecution.

Just before the committee wrapped, the two officials said the offences SNC-Lavalin faces are covered by the deferred-prosecution-agreement regime, meaning Wilson-Raybould could have offered the company a deal.

And in his last comment, Wernick said he asked Drouin for a backgrounder about the remediation deals as the issue bubbled up in September and October.

The document gave no recommendation on what to do, Wernick said, but it formed the foundation for his participation in the file ever after.

Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt wanted the two to continue testifying a little longer but the committee, on which Liberals hold a majority, decided against it.


3:56 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick said he believed new facts or evidence emerged late last year that could have affected former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould's decision to not offer SNC-Lavalin a remediation agreement.

Wernick said the "tanking" of the company's share price raised the possibility of a takeover — a new risk for the company as it faced criminal charges.

Another development was communication from the new premier of Quebec Francois Legault, Wernick said. Either might have affected Wilson-Raybould's thinking on the issue and it was appropriate to raise them with her, he said.

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus argued that SNC-Lavalin's share price shouldn't be considered a matter of national economic interest.

Wernick said his understanding of economic interest, as it is include in the legislation, does relate to the potential for domestic job losses at an implicated company.

What it doesn't mean, he said, is favouring one company over another because it helps one country over another.


3:50 p.m.

The country's top civil servant, Michael Wernick, said he has retained a lawyer personally because of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's request to the RCMP to look into the SNC-Lavalin affair.

When Raitt asked about the wording of some of Wernick's remarks to the committee, Wernick became defensive.

"What are you insinuating?" he said.

"I'm not insinuating anything," Raitt said.

Wernick shot back that she was.

Just moments earlier, Wernick riled opposition MPs when he talked about how former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould said nothing illegal occurred over a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin. The opposition MPs pushed their chairs from the table, laughed or audibly scoffed.

"So that's the threshold?" one said.

"What about ethics?" another quipped.

A few others began reciting the phrase "I am not a crook" — the one made notorious by Richard Nixon.

Wernick appeared unfazed.

Questioning moved back to the Liberal side, where MP Randy Boissonnault peppered Justice Department deputy minister Nathalie Drouin about a report her officials crafted about the consequences a criminal conviction might have on SNC-Lavalin.

She said she didn't provide the report to the Privy Council Office at the direction of Wilson-Raybould.

When Boissonnault turned his attention to Wernick, he asked if Wilson-Raybould and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were at loggerheads on the case. Wernick declined to answer.


3:34 p.m.

Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick said he could see there was a growing tension and frustration about the SNC-Lavalin issue in multiple government departments last year.

He also said that any conversations he had with SNC-Lavalin, including an October phone call with its chairman Kevin Lynch, one of Wernick's predecessors at the head of the federal public service, were appropriate.

Wernick said he told Lynch in the firmest wording possible that he and SNC-Lavalin would have to go through prosecutor on the file.

Also, even though Wilson-Raybould testified that she had made up her mind not to intervene on the company's behalf by September, Wernick said the decision was not final in law.

Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt asked why Gerald Butts was able to get access to his text messages after leaving the Prime Minister's Office but suspended Vice-Admiral Mark Norman can't get access to his own emails for his criminal trial. Wernick said he didn't understand the premise of the question.

The two tussled over the optics of SNC-Lavalin having special access to powerful people and Wernick was firm to say the conversation with Lynch in particular didn't cross any lines.

The tussle continued with NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus, who suggested Wernick shouldn't even be clerk if he can't come to the committee and provide detailed answers. Wernick said he never threatened Wilson-Raybould.


3:20 p.m.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has moved on to questioning Michael Wernick about two events involving Wernick, Wilson-Raybould, including one meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

At the September meeting with Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould said the prime minister raised electoral concerns in regards to SNC-Lavalin potentially leaving Quebec if it faced a criminal conviction.

Wernick said that's not his recollection of what Trudeau said.

Wernick said he never told Wilson-Raybould that SNC-Lavalin could move its headquarters if the government didn't pursue a remediation deal to avoid criminal prosecution.

But, Wernick said that the case is still before the courts and the "company was and is at risk."

At one point, Wernick asked the chairman of the committee to have Poilievre stop talking so he could finish an answer.


3:00 p.m.

Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council, said he is unapologetic for raising alarms at his first appearance before the committee where he talked about heated political rhetoric potentially leading to violence and foreign interference in this year's federal election.

Wernick said he is deeply worried and that the country needs a debate about foreign interference in elections.

He also took aim at social media, saying the country shouldn't normalize the cyber bullying of public officials, such as him. He added he was upset by the trolling of any politician, singling out Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.

NDP justice critic Murray Rankin argued that Wernick crossed line in his testimony and his conversations with Wilson-Raybould.

Wernick said he respectfully disagrees, saying he never gave advice — nor has done anything during his career — for partisan political purposes. And at no time, he said, did he do anything to influence Wilson-Raybould's decision.

The back-and-forth was one of the more heated moments so far in Wernick's second appearance before the Commons justice committee.


2:53 p.m.

The top civil servant at the Justice Department said the Privy Council Office asked for a report her department wrote about the potential consequences of a criminal prosecution on SNC-Lavalin, but the document was never provided.

Nathalie Drouin said it wasn't given to the Privy Council Office, the central bureaucracy that serves the prime minister and cabinet, on the request of the office of then attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Drouin spoke about the briefing note under questioning after her opening statement, in which she detailed dates when Wilson-Raybould was briefed, or the two spoke about, the SNC-Lavalin file.

Drouin said the memo, dated Sept. 8, laid out options and background information for Wilson-Raybould on remediation deals.

She said that by Sept. 19, Wilson-Raybould told Drouin she was done talking about the case.


2:25 p.m.

Michael Wernick, the country's top civil servant, and deputy minister of justice Nathalie Drouin arrived at the committee to respond to the testimony Jody Wilson-Raybould provided the committee last week.

Wilson-Raybould won't have a repeat performance of her own after the Liberal majority on the committee voted down an opposition motion to recall the former attorney general just before the committee took its lunch break an hour earlier.

At the start of his testimony, Wernick provided a stack of social media posts mentioning him that he argued constitute attempts to intimidate a witness. He vowed to give them to the media.

Wernick said he never gives advice based on partisan motivations — any advice he provides is impartial.

The clerk of the Privy Council said he is disappointed that people would accuse him of partisanship and spoke about being appointed to senior civil-service positions by both Liberal and Conservative prime ministers.

He said he was worried that the SNC-Lavalin case could surface in the Quebec election, and said it was his duty to warn Wilson-Raybould about conventions that the federal government stays out of provincial campaigns.

Wernick went on to say that he spoke with Drouin to talk about issues her new minister — Wilson-Raybould's successor David Lametti — would have to deal with, among them SNC-Lavalin, the Mark Norman trial, court challenges to the federal carbon tax, and the Trans Mountain pipeline.

He said he never singled out SNC-Lavalin as the only issue facing a new justice minister, as Wilson-Raybould suggested last week.

Wernick said he stands by his previous testimony and that Wilson-Raybould received lawful advocacy on a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin.

"The minister was doing her job, and I was doing mine."

He ended by asking the committee to come up with better rules around remediation agreements that could be adopted by June.


12:30 p.m.

After just over two hours of testimony, the committee dismissed Butts as a witness. He left without speaking to reporters.

In his last few minutes of testimony, Butts said the deferred prosecution agreement at the heart of the questions surrounding the SNC-Lavalin affair has been badly mischaracterized as a get-out-of-jail-free card, instead of a way for companies to make amends while protecting innocent workers, shareholders and pensioners from being harmed.

The Canadian government moved ahead with the option to fall in line with the law in other countries like the United States and Britain, he said.

He summed up his testimony by saying the Prime Minister's Office believed it needed more thought and "transparency" to make sure it explored all options on the matter because the law had never been applied before.

When asked by MP Erin Weir — a former New Democrat — whether he now believes it was a mistake to shuffle Wilson-Raybould, Butts only said he felt the government, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, were put in a very difficult position in trying to deal with the departure of former Treasury Board president Scott Brison.

"There was no malice toward anybody and there certainly wasn't personal malice toward anybody," Butts said.

The prime minister, he said, made a well-informed decision about the cabinet shuffle.

Butts added that had everyone on the team done everything asked of them by the prime minister, then we would not be having this conversation today.

The committee is due to reconvene at 2 p.m. ET to hear from Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick and deputy minister of justice Nathalie Drouin.


12:22 p.m.

Butts said nothing inappropriate happened and nothing untoward was alleged to have happened between Jody Wilson-Raybould and other top government officials until after the cabinet shuffle that saw her moved from the Justice Department to Veterans Affairs.

When he spoke with Wilson-Raybould about her being shuffled, Butts recalled that she asked him if the move was related to the SNC-Lavalin affair and he told her it wasn't.

Butts said he was genuinely surprised that someone he had spent so much time with — and someone Trudeau had spent time with — could interpret the shuffle in "such a dark light."

He had earlier testified that she had been offered the Department of Indigenous Services, which she turned down over her opposition to the Indian Act. Instead, Wilson-Raybould was shuffled to veterans affairs.

Under questioning from Green Leader Elizabeth May, Butts said he never spoke with SNC-Lavalin's lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, nor can he recall anything specific about jobs being at risk at SNC-Lavalin if a criminal trial proceeded.

He added he was briefed multiple times about the issue.


12:08 p.m.

NDP justice critic Murray Rankin, pointing to Wilson-Raybould's version of events, asked Butts about a November meeting she had with senior Prime Minister's Office staff where she told them her mind had been made up about SNC-Lavalin, looking to poke a hole in Butts' testimony.

Butts had said he learned of her decision only last week when she testified.

After remaining very calm for much of the approximately two hours he has been before the committee, Butts became a little more defensive as opposition MPs questioned the veracity of his account.

Butts said he hopes the evidence he has provided can aid in the committee's deliberations, stressing he and other officials didn't feel anyone was doing anything wrong and had honest discussions.

It was incumbent on Wilson-Raybould to hear all options and advice before making a final call, he said.

"If this was wrong and wrong in the way it has alleged to have been wrong, why are we have this discussion now and not in the middle of September, or October, or November, or December?" Butts asked.

When Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of the Justice Department in January, Butts said, she didn't inform the prime minister that she had no confidence in him, nor did she ever say something like that to Butts before she resigned from cabinet in February.


11:50 a.m.

Butts and NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus sparred over his meeting on Dec. 18 with Jessica Prince, who was then chief of staff to Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Angus pointed to Butts's earlier testimony about how that meeting unfolded and how it differed from the account provided by Wilson-Raybould, someone he called a credible witness.

Butts started to talk, Angus interrupted in, and the two went back and forth. Finally, Angus said Wilson-Raybould either lied or she didn't, adding her reputation is on the line.

The issue is about what happened, Butts said. People have different perspectives on what happened.

Looking at Angus, he told the New Democrat that Angus wasn't going to get him to call anyone names.


11:44 a.m.

If Wilson-Raybould had made up her mind up on SNC-Lavalin, Butts said she didn't need to disclose anything about the content of her decision or order to public prosecutors, but could have let the Prime Minister's Office know a decision had been made.

Wilson-Raybould didn't, he said, and it seemed she solicited further meetings on the matter and welcomed further advice.

If anyone crossed a line, it was Wilson-Raybould's responsibility to inform the Prime Minister's Office of it, Butt said, adding he would be the person she would most likely have approached and Wilson-Raybould never brought it up with him.

The Conservatives put forward a motion asking the government to hand over all texts Butts sent to Finance Minister Bill Morneau's chief of staff, Ben Chin, Morneau himself, Wilson-Raybould, two senior officials on Trudeau's staff, current Justice Minister David Lametti, and Trudeau about the SNC-Lavalin file — but the Liberal majority voted it down.

Butts said all of the texts and information he has at his disposal about the Dec. 5 meeting has been read into the record.


11:31 a.m.

On the texts Butts used in his testimony, the former Trudeau aide said he got them through his lawyer. Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt pressed him on who picked the texts being used as evidence.

Butts had to give up his government phone when he resigned on Feb. 18.

Butts said he looked at his texts on Feb. 8 — the day after the first Globe and Mail story about the affair — when the newspaper sent him, through the Prime Minister's Office, a very specific question about a December dinner he had with Wilson-Raybould that included talk of the SNC-Lavalin case.

He said he looked at his phone and the texts to see if he remembered the meeting correctly.

Butts added he didn't think SNC-Lavalin was "entitled" to a remediation agreement.

On the allegation of political interference, he pointed to the public statement on Feb. 12 where the public prosecution service rejected allegations of political interference in the trial of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman or on any other matter.

Speaking about the senior Prime Minister's Office staff Wilson-Raybould said pressured her on the case, he said he knows them well, he knows the SNC-Lavalin file a bit, and "it just doesn't ring like something they would do on this or any other matter."

Raitt, before going back into more questioning, gave the committee a heads-up that she would move a motion asking for texts to be tabled as evidence.


11:15 a.m.

Butts has denied the PMO co-ordinated a campaign to pressure Wilson-Raybould to order the federal prosecution service to provide SNC-Lavalin a remediation agreement.

Had such an effort existed, Butts said, he would have known about it.

He also said neither he nor Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ever ordered anyone in the Prime Minister's Office, or anyone else, to press Wilson-Raybould to give SNC-Lavalin a deal.

Butts said he doesn't have an opinion on what decision the former or current attorney general should take on the matter.

It was a "novel law" being applied for the first time, he said. So he and others thought the bare minimum was to make sure the Trudeau government had a good reason to give the workers affected why the government wouldn't provide the company a deal.

The bare minimum, he said, was getting the best advice possible: "There's not much more to this."

The answers come after Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault asked Butts about how many meetings government ministers had about the Trans Mountain pipeline, trying to provide some context for Wilson-Raybould's lobbying claims.

Butts said it would have been hundreds over months — and that would be a fraction of the lobbying effort the government faced during the renegotiation of Canada's free trade agreement with the United States and Mexico.


11:05 a.m.

NDP justice critic Murray Rankin raised Jane Philpott's resignation from cabinet on Monday, and particularly her public letter outlining her concerns about the SNC-Lavalin affair and saying that she had lost confidence in the government's handling of the issue.

He asked Butts about the meeting he had with Wilson-Raybould's then chief of staff, Jessica Prince, on Dec. 18. In the meeting, Wilson-Raybould told the committee that Butts said something to the effect of that there was no solution "that does not involve some interference" after being warned what was being proposed was political interference in a prosecution.

Butts said his recollection was that he didn't — or wouldn't — have used the word "solution" because it's not one he would have used in that context.

He said his point was that if getting a second opinion from someone like a former Supreme Court justice constituted interference, then it seemed it wasn't possible to even have a conversation about the issue.

Answering a question from Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault, Butts said he is not aware that Wilson-Raybould ever brought up concerns about undue pressure to the prime minister, nor did she raise it with him.


10:55 a.m.

Under questioning by Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt, Butts talked about growing up in Cape Breton and the concern people might have had watching a company collapse. He said a brief discussion of ways to help, in a faraway office, wouldn't have been good enough.

He said the Prime Minister's Office just wanted to give consideration to all options on SNC-Lavalin because it was the first time that the law on deferred-prosecution agreements was going to be used, addressing what he called a lot of insinuation about his motives based on speculation.

Looking at the situation today, he said he doesn't envy the position Wilson-Raybould or her successor as justice minister, David Lametti, find themselves in given the stakes for the company and its 9,000 workers in Canada.

He noted that since he resigned, he has gone without speaking to the prime minister, a longtime friend, for the longest time 30 years.

Moving on to questioning from the Liberals on the panel, Butts didn't say Wilson-Raybould lied, adding it's possible for people to see situations differently.

All he is doing today, Butts said, is providing his version of events.


10:42 a.m.

Butts said he regrets that Wilson-Raybould's trust and faith in her colleagues have eroded, but all the officials named in Wilson-Raybould's testimony have done nothing wrong.

At all times, he said, the PMO just wanted to have someone like former Supreme Court justice Beverly McLachlin provide a second opinion, and he did not see how his brief conversations constituted undue pressure.

The concern officials had, he said, was for the 9,000 jobs that could have been lost at SNC-Lavalin if it faced a criminal conviction — something Butts called a public-policy issue.

He said he only learned of Wilson-Raybould's perception of events when she testified at the committee last week, and that she made up her mind in September to not provide SNC-Lavalin a deal.

The decision to move Wilson-Raybould out of the justice portfolio was made because she was a strong performer in cabinet and Trudeau needed a strong minister of Indigenous services, Butts said, and had nothing to do with SNC-Lavalin. She ended up as minister of veterans affairs after refusing to move to Indigenous services.

The committee moved into questioning with a warning from the chair to not wander too much away from the focus of the day's meeting.


10 a.m.

Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, entered the committee room — one larger than used the week prior for former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould — and took his seat, alone.

A number of additional MPs not on the committee attended the meeting today. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was also in the room.

Butts avoided a phalanx of cameras outside the committee room by arriving through a back entrance.

Butts' testimony planned to contradict Wilson-Raybould's version of events, in some detail, casting a different light on conversations Wilson-Raybould described as part a campaign of pressure tactics and veiled threats to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution.

He planned to back up his version of events with emails, text messages and other documentation, much as Wilson-Raybould did in her testimony.

Before beginning to speak, the Liberal majority on the committee voted down a Conservative motion for Butts to be sworn in to testify under oath.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper tried in vain to have Butts sworn in, but he was told the committee had spoken.

"I will tell the truth," Butts told the committee as he started his opening statement.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2019
The Canadian Press

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