Scheer's approach gives Trudeau opening in SNC-Lavalin affair

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Prime Minister Trudeau takes questions at a town hall in Milton, Ontario. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Conservative leader of the Official Opposition Andrew Scheer has demanded that Justin Trudeau resign as prime minister.

Trudeau responded by saying that Canadians would have an opportunity to judge his government in the general election this October 21.

Scheer accuses Trudeau of corruption and obstruction of justice; and has written RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, calling on her to investigate any potential criminal activity.

A group of five former attorneys general (four Conservatives, one NDP) have also written to the RCMP commissioner, pointing to the lobbying efforts made by SNC-Lavalin and the subsequent pressure on the justice minister, who was also the attorney general of Canada, as evidence of interference by the prime minister in an ongoing criminal prosecution.

In his letter Scheer alleges that Trudeau contravened Section 423.1(1) of the Criminal Code "by conduct with the intent to provoke fear in the attorney general." 

Calls for the prime minister to resign are not usually made lightly by any leader of the official opposition. Without evidence of wrongdoing for personal benefit by the prime minister, it is hard to see why Scheer would expect Trudeau to resign. The question of improper political pressure is being looked at by the ethics commissioner.

Testimony before the justice committee of the House of Commons by Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick and former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould revealed a serious clash of wills between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould about how to deal with corruption charges brought against engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.

After being demoted to Veterans Affairs, Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet February 12 "with a heavy heart." On March 4 her colleague Jane Philpott also resigned, saying, "I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter," in reference to political pressure brought on the AG and expressing her unwillingness to maintain cabinet solidarity.

Trudeau wanted Wilson-Raybould to consider inviting SNC-Lavalin to submit to a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) that would include acknowledgement of guilt, financial penalties, and require future undertakings to prevent wrongdoings.

The relationship between the AG and the director of public prosecutions (DPP) allows the AG to request the independent DPP to issue an invitation for application of a DPA in place of a costly criminal trial that could take years to complete, with no guarantee of a conviction. 

DPAs are applicable in cases where criminal actions brought against companies such as SNC-Lavalin were deemed likely to cause damage to employees, suppliers, and local communities.

Wilson- Raybould, a former Crown prosecutor, had decided last September that the DPP was right to pursue criminal proceedings against SNC-Lavalin arising from bribery charges in Libya brought by the RCMP that date back to 2015. She was not prepared to go back on her decision despite numerous entreaties to do so. 

In 2012 SNC-Lavalin's Vice-President Construction Riadh Ben Aissa was convicted and imprisoned in Switzerland of fraud, in connection with illegal payments to obtain Libyan contracts. No charges were brought against SNC-Lavalin at that time; indeed, it was considered an injured party.

In 2015, based on leads from the Swiss, SNC-Lavalin was charged by the RCMP with paying $48 million in bribes to the Libyan government between 2001 and 2011, and defrauding Libyan organizations of nearly $130 million.

The controversy surrounding corrupt dealings by SNC-Lavalin has received extensive coverage in the Quebec media since 2012.

The case that shocked Quebec public opinion were kickbacks SNC-Lavalin paid to get the contract to build the $1.4-billion McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). In this case seven people were charged in 2012 with receiving $22.5 million in kickbacks, including MUHC CEO Arthur Porter who was accused of taking $11.25 million. Porter fled the country but was arrested in Panama in 2013, where he received treatment for cancer and died in 2015.

In 2008 Porter had been named head of the very sensitive Security Intelligence Review Committee by Stephen Harper.   

The differences between Trudeau and his former justice minister were first announced in February reports published by The Globe and Mail and picked up widely. Wilson-Raybould testified under oath that nothing illegal had transpired in the multiple attempts to get her to bring in an outside expert to examine the DPA as an alternative to criminal action.

The sight of a former minister accusing the prime minister of improper conduct electrified opinion.

Moreover Wilson-Raybould has announced her intention to be a Liberal candidate in the next election.

Former NDP leader Tom Mulcair, now a prominent media commentator, has suggested that Trudeau erred in not publicly making a public case for SNC-Lavalin as a national asset worth preserving. Instead Team Trudeau snuck the DPA legislation into an omnibus budget bill.

With board chair Kevin Lynch, a former deputy minister of finance under Paul Martin and clerk of the Privy Council to Stephen Harper, and with their behind closed doors lobbying, SNC-Lavalin did not do themselves any favours.

All lobbying efforts are public knowledge because they must be registered. Those by SNC-Lavalin mainly served to raise public suspicions about their motives. The efforts to transform the company culture, the rollover of top management, the renewal of the board, have yet to bring about the desired effects of re-making the company image.

The storm of controversy swirling around Trudeau suggests that it would be a mistake for the Liberals to focus their re-election campaign on the leader. Envy breeds hate, goes the Yiddish proverb, and Trudeau was attracting outsized reactions from media figures and opposition politicians even before the resignation of Philpott. 

The Conservatives have opted to create a "culture of contempt" to secure a rejection of the government in October. Trudeau, Quebec, SNC-Lavalin all get painted as corrupt and not worthy.

The Scheer approach gives Trudeau an opening. In Quebec, where the issue matters most, the Liberals become by default the champion of local head offices, jobs, and incomes, regardless of how the SNC-Lavalin corruption case turns out.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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