What to expect when Gerald Butts and others involved in the SNC-Lavalin scandal testify at the justice committee

What to expect when Gerald Butts and others involved in the SNC-Lavalin scandal testify at the justice committee
OTTAWA—As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s confidant, friend and former senior aide, there are few secrets of the workings of government that Gerald Butts doesn’t know.

When Butts appears before the House of Commons justice committee Wednesday morning, MPs will be expecting him to tell what he knows about allegations that he and other senior officials pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the criminal proceedings against SNC-Lavalin .

Gerald Butts leaves caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 20, 2017. Butts will be testifying before the Commons justice committee on March 6, 2019.  (Matthew Usherwood / iPolitics/Matthew Usherwood)

In her own bombshell appearance last week, Wilson-Raybould described a “consistent and sustained effort” by those officials to “politically interfere” in her prosecutorial discretion, which she said was “inappropriate.”

Trudeau has maintained there was no improper pressure. Butts’s testimony will be key to the prime minister’s defence. He resigned his post last month after the allegations broke, “categorically” denying the allegations that he or others pressured Wilson-Raybould. “We honoured the unique role of the attorney general,” Butts said in a statement.

Wednesday afternoon, the committee will also hear from two returning witnesses: Michael Wernick , the clerk of the Privy Council, and Nathalie Drouin, the deputy minister of justice and deputy attorney general.

Here’s a look at some of the key issues and questions for each of the players:

Gerald Butts

Trudeau’s former principal secretary — and longtime friend — will testify first. As Trudeau’s top adviser, Butts had a hand in most of the government’s initiatives and priorities. He will know why jobs at SNC-Lavalin, which Trudeau and his ministers have repeatedly cited as justification for their interventions on the file, were so important.

“He was very clear that his intent was to vigorously defend his reputation,” said Amanda Alvaro, co-founder of the public relations firm Pomp and Circumstance, in reference to Butts’s resignation letter and request to appear at the justice committee after Wilson-Raybould’s testimony last week.

“Both of those factors signal his intention to rebut some of the testimony,” she said.

If Wilson-Raybould’s version of events is any indication, Butts will be called on to explain at least two incidents the former attorney general outlined at the justice committee last week.

Wilson-Raybould said she met with Butts on Dec. 5 at Zoe’s, the bar at the Chateau Laurier hotel. She says she brought up the topic of SNC and the “barrage of people hounding me and my staff” and told Butts that “any engagements were inappropriate.”

Butts told Wilson-Raybould “we need a solution on the SNC stuff” and referenced the legislation passed by previous Conservative government that created the director of public prosecutions role — “Gerry talked to me about how the statute was a statute passed by Harper and that he does not like the law,” Wilson-Raybould testified.

SNC-Lavalin: What happened and when

Almost two weeks later, Wilson-Raybould says her chief of staff, Jessica Prince, was summoned to an urgent meeting with Butts and Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff. Frustrated, they demanded to know where Wilson-Raybould was “in terms of finding a solution. They told her that they felt like the issue was getting worse, and that I was not doing anything.” They floated the possibility of a phone call with Trudeau and Wernick the next day.

Butts and Telford wanted an outside lawyer retained to give Wilson-Raybould an opinion whether she could review the decision of the director of public prosecutions not to mediate SNC-Lavalin’s criminal charges. Prince said that would be “interference.” According to Wilson-Raybould, Butts replied, “Jess, there is no solution here that does not involve some interference.”

Butts will be challenged on this statement.

Charles Bird, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group who has worked as a public policy adviser at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill, predicted Butts’s aim at the committee will be twofold. He will need to convincingly lay out his side of the story — possibly with supporting documentation — and explain that his interactions with Wilson-Raybould were “well within the bounds” of what is appropriate, Bird said.

“Gerald is one of the smartest most capable political operatives that general politics has seen for some time. He will certainly be aware of what a minefield he is walking into,” he said.

Former NDP MP Peggy Nash said the big question for Butts is why he quit his job. “He said he didn’t do anything wrong and yet he resigned. I think he needs to explain why,” said Nash, a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University.

She said that Butts cannot simply chalk Wilson-Raybould’s version of events as a “difference of interpretation.” Wilson-Raybould was a credible witness with detailed testimony, Nash said, and Butts needs “to be equally detailed and documented and credible.”

But in the wake of Jane Philpott’s surprise resignation from cabinet Monday — declaring she had lost confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair — Nash said it’s now incumbent on Trudeau to respond.

“It’s not like this was happening and he was unaware of it. He was overseeing this and as we heard, felt very strongly about it so I do think he needs to be heard,” Nash said.

Michael Wernick

Canada’s top bureaucrat, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, will also return to speak to the justice committee for the second time about the SNC-Lavalin affair.

In his first round of testimony, Wernick said that Wilson-Raybould likely felt pressure to make the “right” decision but insisted all discussions were legal and appropriate. Yet Wilson-Raybould painted a different picture of their interactions.

For example, she recounted how she met with Trudeau on Sept. 17, a meeting that Wernick sat in on. Trudeau asked her to “find a solution” for SNC, saying that with no mediated settlement, “many jobs” would be lost. Wilson-Raybould told Wernick and Trudeau that she would not override the decision of the director of public prosecutions. To her “surprise,” Wernick started to make the case for a mediated deal, citing an upcoming SNC board meeting, raising the threat of the company relocation and the Quebec election. Wilson-Raybould says she was “quite taken aback” and cautioned both men about politically interfering in the court process.

Wilson-Raybould said the pressure campaign “culminated” in a lengthy “tense” Dec. 19 phone call with Wernick, who wanted to pass on “where the prime minister is at.”

“He said ‘I think he is gonna find a way to get it done one way or another. So, he is in that kinda mood and I wanted you to be aware of that’,” Wilson-Raybould recalled.

“I warned the clerk that we were treading on dangerous ground here,” she told the committee. Wernick told Wilson-Raybould he was worried about a “collision because the PM is pretty firm about this.”

Wilson-Raybould took parts of that conversation with Wernick as “veiled threats” — his repeated references to the prime minister, declaring that Trudeau was “dug in,” and concerns about the fallout. She said Wernick told her he is worried that it’s not good for the prime minister and attorney general to be at “loggerheads.” He also said he is worried about a collision between Wilson-Raybould and the prime minister over the matter.

Wilson-Raybould said she told Wernick he was “treading on dangerous ground” that “all of this screams” of pushing her to act in a partisan or politically-motivated way. “That is entirely inappropriate,” she said.

Political scientist David Moscrop said he believes it will be difficult for Wernick to change the perception that he engaged in partisan political considerations, given Wilson-Raybould’s testimony.

“As the head of the public service, you’re meant to appear beyond reproach and apolitical or certainly non-partisan,” Moscrop said. “He doesn’t appear to be either of those things anymore, at least in the public perception. So it’s going to be very difficult for him to reframe that, and I don’t know how he does it.”

Nash said the “partisan flavour” of Wernick’s first appearance before the committee surprised many and undermined his credibility. “I think he needs to clarify how he squares his role, which is the head of the civil service and an independent person, with the comments he made,” Nash said.
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