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Opinion

SNC-Lavalin and Wilson-Raybould resignation has hit federal government hard

By Michael Harris      

It’s early innings, but the government has stuck its thumb where it must almost never go—into the pie of the criminal justice system. But instead of a plum, they pulled out a scandal.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, left, who resigned from cabinet over the whole SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Did Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister get a career path change to Veterans Affairs because she refused to overrule her director of public prosecutions?  The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade
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HALIFAX—The Jody Wilson-Raybould cabinet resignation/SNC-Lavalin controversy has hit the Liberal government hard.

The first person hit was Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s university buddy and handler. His departure as principal secretary was as unexpected as Donald Trump passing a lie detector test, or Doug Ford going to night school to improve his French.

Is the demise of the Trudeau government foretokened in this moment of scandal in the heart of the Liberal cabinet? A recent Ipsos poll shows the Liberals trailing the Conservatives in the crucial 905 belt around Toronto. Pollster Darrell Bricker says SNC-Lavalin controversy was a factor.

Could it all really end for Justin Trudeau in a heap of corruption, as it did for the federal Liberals more than a decade ago in that massive breach of trust known as Adscam? Despite the show of unity, the Liberals are divided and confused as a caucus. Silly, hurtful slagging has already been directed at Wilson-Raybould from her own colleagues, a kind of family blame-game. One Liberal MP, who also happens to chair the House Justice Committee, absurdly suggested that Wilson-Raybould was possibly removed because her French was lousy. Anthony Housefather’s words were barely out his mouth before he apologized. Meanwhile, it took the PM more than a week to denounce some of the worst of it.

It’s early innings, but the government has stuck its thumb where it must almost never go—into the pie of the criminal justice system. But instead of a plum, they pulled out a scandal.

The country now sits before the proposition that a federal justice minister may have been removed for refusing to do the government’s bidding—or for resisting its heavy hints, in a criminal case.

Gerry Butts, pictured on Aug. 28, 2017, resigned from his top PMO job on Feb. 18, 2019. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Did Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister get a career path change to Veterans Affairs because she refused to overrule her director of public prosecutions? In particular, did Wilson-Raybould decline to direct Kathleen Roussel to negotiate a settlement with SNC-Lavalin rather than conduct a criminal trial? According to Butts, who met privately with Wilson-Raybould on Dec. 5, 2018, nothing of the sort happened. But his resignation letter features an anomaly.

The top dog in the PMO has apparently resigned over the high crime of doing absolutely nothing wrong. There are three possible ways of getting an answer to whether or not Wilson-Raybould was the victim of political punishment, since she herself has not yet spoken. The ethics commissioner; the House of Commons Justice Committee; and the prime minister. In the current circumstances, these are the Curly, Larry, and Moe of accountability.

Ethics investigations are private, go on forever, and end, at best, in a public lashing with a wet noodle for miscreants. The commissioner doesn’t even have to publish a report.

So what about the House Justice Committee?

That body is supposedly “investigating” too. But it is controlled and chaired by Liberals who have been to obedience school, as their initial decision to produce a witness list that left out all the principals ludicrously demonstrates.

True, Wilson-Raybould is going to testify at the committee; but she is so tangled in the weeds of privilege and confidentiality, Canadians may be more confused after she speaks than they were before.

As for the prime minister, waiving solicitor/client privilege and allowing an unfettered Wilson-Raybould to tell her side of the story, he’ll go back to the Aga Khan’s island for Easter break before that happens.

But there is more on the line here than the ethics, credibility, and potential “criminal activity” of senior government officials and politicians. This scandal is about national character. The member of We Wai Kai Nation and former justice minister has shown the best side of the country’s commitment to justice and integrity. The prime minister and his advisers, not so much.

Canada likes to see itself as a world leader in fighting corruption, and creating a level playing field for Canadian businesses abroad. Do we really want to be known as a country that stays criminal charges at home all because a company is too big to face justice? Jobs are important, and no one wants to see SNC-Lavalin employees and investors damaged. The company says it’s cleaned up its corporate act since 2013. They didn’t have much choice. That was the year that the World Bank imposed a 10-year ban on SNC-Lavalin, preventing it from bidding on construction projects financed by the international monetary body.

Canada cares about corporate corruption, at least on paper. In 1998, the Chrétien government enacted the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act under the OECD Convention combatting bribery. It became a crime for companies or individuals to bribe foreign public officials. The punishment is a prison term of up to 14 years. A report on the enforcement of the act is presented annually to both Houses of Parliament. Why is this law so important?

The OECD estimates that about $1-trillion U.S. is paid in bribes worldwide every year. The World Economic Forum reports that corruption increases the cost of doing business by about 10 per cent. Transparency International (TI) is the leading anti-corruption NGO in Canada. It says that “corruption in government procurement processes can add as much as 50 per cent to a project’s costs.”

The OECD convention provides mandatory peer evaluation by members. Canada has been a lead examiner reviewing member implementation of the convention in other countries. Now Canada is up for its own evaluation in early 2020. The SNC-Lavalin controversy could be a factor.

At the same time as it was lobbying government, SNC-Lavalin signed at least $68-million in new federal contracts in 2018, according to The Toronto Star. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

There are four ongoing Canadian cases under CFPOA in which charges have been laid. SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and two of its subsidiaries top the list for allegedly paying massive bribes in Libya.

The RCMP is responsible for tracking cases under CFPOA. Following an investigation triggered by a tip from Swiss authorities in 2011, SNC-Lavalin was charged with fraud and corruption on Feb. 19, 2015. At the time, the RCMP assistant commissioner, Gilles Michaud, said: “The charges laid today demonstrate how the RCMP continues to support Canada’s international commitments and safeguard its integrity and reputation.”

One thing that is not much talked about is this: what does the government say to RCMP officers who did a major international investigation, at some personal risk, when the rule of law is bypassed by a dubious amendment buried in a budget bill? How do you make the elephant of crime disappear? You invoke the distraction of remediation.

No one was more interested in making the elephant of alleged crimes disappear than SNC-Lavalin. The very company that is charged under CFPOA has lobbied the federal government since Feb. 2, 2016, to change the law and avoid a criminal trial.

The list of government members and officials the company didn’t lobby is probably shorter than the list of those they did. It runs the gamut from the PM’s departed principal secretary Gerald Butts, to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, and even Canada’s ambassador to the United States, former lobbyist David McNaughton.

Remediation agreements were added to the Criminal Code in 2018. To the shame of MPs of all parties, it didn’t get five minutes of debate in the House of Commons; pretty sad, when you consider that the new legislation gives all corporations a way of committing crimes without becoming criminals.

At the same time as it was lobbying government, SNC-Lavalin signed at least $68-million in new federal contracts in 2018, according to The Toronto Star. A 10-year ban on bidding for federal work, the price of a conviction, would hurt SNC’s bottom line. But this is not an existential crisis.

The company has other clients.

Saudi Arabia, for example, accounts for about 11 per cent of Lavalin’s business, and is viewed as “a big growth area.” It has 9,100 employees in country, compared to 8,500 in Canada. Even after the backlash from the heinous murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, SNC was able to increase its Saudi employment slightly, which now includes more than 1,400 Saudi nationals.

In other words, the company will survive in some form or another, no matter what happens in the Libya bribery case. If Justin Trudeau wants the world to see Canada as “clean dealers,” the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin should proceed. There is a telling irony in the company’s desire to negotiate a remediation deal. Part of the terms of a “deferred prosecution agreement” (DPA), is “admission of responsibility for the act or omission that forms the basis of the offence.” By lobbying so hard for a DPA, SNC-Lavalin has in effect admitted they are guilty as charged. They just don’t want the criminal record. A close reading of the new DPA legislation reveals that, “if the organization is alleged to have committed an offence under Sec. 3 or Sec. 4 of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, the prosecutor must not consider the national public interest.”

SNC-Lavalin was charged under the act, making them ineligible for a DPA. Justin Trudeau should realize that the country has a lot more to lose in “Jodygate” than the quixotic exit of a prime minister’s principal secretary. Like SNC-Lavalin, Canada’s reputation is on trial here too. But you would never know it from Trudeau’s dismal and disappointing performance in Question Period last week. The last thing Parliament needs is a leader who answers questions with non-sequiturs. The Globe and Mail has now revealed that when Trudeau spoke to his then attorney general on Sept. 17, 2018, the decision to prosecute had already been taken.

Roussel had informed SNC-Lavalin on Sept. 4 that she intended to proceed with a trial. Did the prime minister know that the company had already been turned down for a DPA when he spoke to his attorney general? If so, was this pressuring for a different outcome, or something worse?

Michael Harris a bestselling author, journalist, and documentary filmmaker.

The Hill Times 

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