Naval officer’s trial could haunt Liberals in fall election campaign
|Toronto Star 14 Apr 2019 at 19:52|
OTTAWA—In an Ottawa courthouse, where daily law-and-order dramas play out before judges, one court proceeding is slowly playing out that could land on Justin Trudeau’s doorstep just as Canadians get ready to go to the polls.
At the centre of the case is Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, a top-ranking officer charged with breach of trust for allegedly leaking confidential details of a cabinet discussion about a supply ship contract.
Like the SNC-Lavalin controversy that has dogged the Liberal government since February, Conservative MPs charge that the Norman case also involves political interference — in this case, to make a senior naval officer the fall guy for an embarrassing political leak.
“To the Liberal government, he was a problem, and now he is being set up. It is shameful,” Conservative MP Erin O’Toole told the Commons earlier this month.
“Canadians should be outraged. This is worse than the SNC scandal. We may have issues with bad practice by a company, but here is a Canadian who gave three decades of his life to his country, and before that grew up in a family serving the country, who is being hung out to dry,” said O’Toole, a lawyer and a veteran himself.
Opposition MPs wonder if evidence of political interference in the Norman trial lies somewhere in the emails and notes written by senior government officials and now sought by his defence team.
Norman, who was the vice-chief of defence staff, arrives for each court appearance in full dress uniform, with an array of medals accumulated over more than three decades of service. They include Commander of the Order of Military Merit, which recognizes “outstanding meritorious service and demonstrated leadership in duties of great responsibility,” the Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal, the Special Service Medal for NATO service and a U.S. honour for “exceptionally meritorious service” as commander of the Royal Canadian Navy.
Marie Henein, his lawyer, has denied any wrongdoing by Norman, painting him as an honourable officer who always put the interests of the military and the country first.
“We will respond to this allegation in a courtroom where evidence, objectivity and fairness matter and where politics have absolutely no place,” she said in a statement the day the charge was laid.
The roots of the case lie in a cabinet meeting in November 2015, just weeks after Justin Trudeau’s government had taken office.
At the time, the Royal Canadian Navy had a big problem: Its two aging resupply ships were retired in 2014, sooner than expected, leaving the navy with a gap of five to 10 years until new vessels arrived.
With no ability to refuel and resupply its warships at sea, Canada’s navy would be constrained in its operations or forced to rely on allies.
The previous Conservative government had negotiated a $667-million, sole-source contract with the Chantier Davie shipyard in Levis, Que. to modify a civilian ship for the role. But that contract had sparked protests from rival Irving Shipbuilding which said its own proposal got scant interest.
Just days before the Liberal cabinet ministers met, James Irving, co-chief executive officer of Irving Shipbuilding, wrote several of them, including Treasury Board President Scott Brison, asking that his company’s proposal be considered as well before the contract was finalized. “We believe our proposal is superior,” Irving wrote in the letter, which was later revealed in court documents.
Gathered around the large oval table in the cabinet meeting room, the fledgling cabinet ministers agreed to delay the contact.
It was a serious breach of cabinet confidentiality and it angered ministers. Brison, who had previously served in cabinet, told investigators that he could not remember a leak of this kind, which he said “impacted our ability to do our work.
“We have cabinet confidence (so) that we can speak openly and honestly with each other and discussion information and that was blown out of the water by this,” Brison said, according to court documents.
The leak triggered an internal investigation and a subsequent police probe into how details of the cabinet discussions got into the hands of lobbyists and the media.
In a subsequent application for a search warrant, RCMP Cpl. Matthieu Boulanger said he had “reasonable grounds” to believe that a breach of trust by a public officer had occurred.
In January 2017, Norman was removed from his post by Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff. In March 2018, he was charged. The RCMP allege that Norman was opposed to the delay and leaked the cabinet debate to press the government to move forward with the project, a result “he wanted personally.”
The trial is scheduled to begin in August, just as the federal election campaign is poised to begin for the October vote.
Henein and her team have cast a wide net for government documents, reaching into the Prime Minister s Office, the Privy Council Office, the Treasury Board, the defence department and Canadian Armed Forces, Public Services and Procurement Canada, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and the Justice Department.
She is also seeking emails, BlackBerry messages and other internal communications from senior officials.
One of those in spotlight — Brison — surprised many earlier this year when quit his cabinet post and left politics entirely, declining to serve out the last few months before the October vote.
For now, the pretrial process is weighed down in discussions about the pace of government disclosures and the review of documents by Justice Heather Perkins-McVey. The volume of the paper trail — including a 60-page memo penned by then-clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick — suggests to one former military officer that there was high-level interest in the case within government.
“An astonishing depth of info of some sort that implies way too much interest in the case by some party or parties,” he told the Star, speaking on background because of the sensitivity of the case.
A comment by the prime minister only fuelled the concerns of political interference when he predicted in 2017 that Norman would be in court.
“Why is this so outrageous? ... That was a year before charges were laid. The prime minister already knew what was coming for Mark Norman,” O’Toole said in his Commons’ speech on the case.
In February, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada felt compelled to issue a statement asserting its independence and insisting that it had “not sought or received instructions” on Norman’s prosecution from the department that supports the Prime Minister’s Office or any other department or agency.
“I am confident that our prosecutors, in this and every other case, exercise their discretion independently and free from any political or partisan consideration,” Kathleen Roussel, the director of public prosecutions, said in the statement.
More recently, Conservative MP Lisa Raitt asked Jody Wilson-Raybould whether she had been approached by the prime minister, officials in his office, or the clerk of the Privy Council “and given any directions, directives or suggestions on the conduct of the Mark Norman trial or any other trial that was within your bailiwick as the Attorney General?”
Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister, replied that “due to confidences” she was not able to reply.
O’Toole is certain that the August trial date will slip, given the pace of disclosure by the government and the volume of documents that need to be reviewed. He charges that the government is trying to delay the actual trial until after the October federal election. That would ensure any revelations embarrassing or damaging to the Liberals would emerge only after Canadians had gone to the polls.
“Canadians should get to hear the full extent of the trial before the election,” he told the Star in an interview.
As he awaits trial, Norman’s military career is in limbo. His former role as vice-chief of defence staff was filled by senior officers on an interim basis until last summer, when Lt.-Gen. Paul Wynnyk assumed the post full-time. Norman was assigned to a supernumerary position in Vance’s office.
The case has riveted military personnel and veterans, some of whom are chipping in to help Norman cover his legal bills. As of Friday, a GoFundMe campaign had raised $359,105.
“There are many armed forces personnel who are very upset that Mark has been charged,” one retired officer.