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Butts takes ‘full responsibility’ for ‘breakdown’ in trust between Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould, but denies there was improper pressure

By Beatrice Paez      

Gerald Butts repeatedly maintained that efforts to persuade then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to consider another opinion were about saving the 9,000 jobs the government says are on the line if SNC-Lavalin is slapped with a conviction. 

In outlining his defence, Gerald Butts, pictured March 6, 2019, offered a rare glimpse into the political considerations at play behind cabinet shuffles, saying they tried, for about two weeks, to dissuade Scott Brison, the former Treasury Board president, from resigning. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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PARLIAMENT HILL—Gerald Butts, ex-principal secretary to the prime minister, on Wednesday refuted former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s account of the improper political pressure she allegedly faced, saying that her testimony was the “first time” he learned that she had made a “final decision” last fall.

Speaking before the House Justice Committee, Mr. Butts said he takes “full responsibility” for the “breakdown” of trust between Ms. Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), because he was the point person on ensuring that enough consideration was given for a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin.

“There was no malice toward anyone personally or professionally,” Mr. Butts said. “However, a breakdown in the relationship between the former attorney general and the prime minister occurred.”

Mr. Butts said discussions around the case were about asking the former AG to consider seeking an external legal opinion from an “eminent jurist”—an option that he said had been floated by lawyers at the Department of Justice.

Last week, Ms. Wilson-Raybould alleged that there was a concerted effort involving 10 political staffers and bureaucrats aimed at urging her to abandon prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, despite her repeated attempts to put a halt to those appeals. Mr.Butts said it was hard for him to “imagine” that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office would act inappropriately.

He also disputed Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s interpretation of events at their Château Laurier meeting on Dec. 5, saying that she only “briefly” brought up the SNC-Lavalin matter at the end of a two-hour dinner, and that their conversation touched on a number of different issues, including climate change and the light-armoured vehicles contract with Saudi Arabia.

When she raised the issue, he said, it was to ask for his view on the file, and at no point did she raise concerns about the conversations she had with PMO advisers Elder Marques and Mathieu Bouchard. Mr. Butts said he told her that it was ultimately “her call” and that there was a “legitimate public policy” discussion to be had about the deferred prosecution agreement, as the law was relatively new.

In Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s account of that dinner, she said told Mr. Butts as the meeting was wrapping up that the “barrage of people” who were “hounding” her needed to stop, because her mind was made up. She told the committee that when she met with Mr. Trudeau she had informed him that a decision was made.

Mr. Butts repeatedly maintained that efforts to persuade her to consider another opinion were about saving the 9,000 jobs the government says are on the line if SNC-Lavalin is slapped with a conviction.

“Does asking for external advice constitute political interference? By any reasonable definition of the term, it does not,” Mr. Butts said, responding to a question from Liberal MP Colin Fraser (West Nova, N.S).

Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould refused to accept a change in portfolio, according to ex-principal secretary Gerald Butts. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Wilson-Raybould refused portfolio change, says Butts

In outlining his defence, Mr. Butts offered a rare glimpse into the political considerations at play behind cabinet shuffles, saying they tried, for about two weeks, to dissuade Scott Brison, the former Treasury Board president, from resigning, because the government was concerned about losing a valued minister from Atlantic Canada.

When it was clear Mr. Brison would be stepping down, Mr. Butts said they had a “simple plan” for the now-infamous shuffle: then-Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott would replace Mr. Brison, Ms. Wilson-Raybould would fill Ms. Philpott’s post, and David Lametti (LaSalle-Émard-Verdun, Que.) would take over the justice file.

Mr. Butts said it was Ms. Philpott who initially broached concerns that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was being shuffled to a new role because of her refusal to enter into a remediation agreement.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould declined the Indigenous services post, he said, because serving as justice minister was her “dream job” and that she could not assume responsibility for programs that flow from the Indian Act, which she had spent her life “opposing.”

Such a move would be unprecedented, Mr. Butts said, adding that he advised the prime minister that he could not allow a minister to “veto” a shuffle in refusing to move: “My advice was that the prime minister should not set the precedent that a cabinet minister could refuse a new position, and effectively remain in one position for the life of the government.”

His statement echoes Mr. Trudeau’s assertions that, if Mr. Brison hadn’t resigned, Ms. Wilson-Raybould would still be justice minister. She ultimately accepted a position as veterans affairs, a post widely concerned to be a demotion.

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.), speaking to reporters following Mr. Butts’ testimony, said his implication that this was case of “sour grapes” isn’t a “cogent” defence, because she chose to stay on. Ms. Wilson-Raybould later resigned, saying she did not have confidence to sit around the cabinet table anymore.

In his resignation letter last month, Mr. Butts “categorically” denied the allegations that there was improper political interference in the case against SNC-Lavalin. He quit his post in a bid to defend his reputation, though at the time Ms. Wilson-Raybould had yet to single him out as one of the 10 individuals involved in the campaign urging her to grant SNC a remediation agreement.

A close personal friend of the prime minister, Mr. Butts told the committee his decision to resign was out of consideration for Mr. Trudeau: “If I stayed on, his actions or inactions toward me could have been used to accuse him of playing favourites.”

The committee is expected to hear from Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and deputy minister of justice Nathalie Drouin in the afternoon.

bpaez@hilltimes.com

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