Speaking out for the first time since his resignation amid the fallout of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former right-hand man Gerald Butts appeared at the House justice committee to tell a very different version of events from the one told by former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.
On Wednesday, Butts recounted his conversations with Wilson-Raybould and read out text messages between them, claiming that neither he nor other members of Trudeau’s staff did anything wrong.
The government has been denying allegations, first reported by The Globe and Mail last month, that the prime minister’s office inappropriately pressured Wilson-Raybould to interfere in criminal proceedings against Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin and grant the company a deferred prosecution agreement and help it avoid a criminal trial.
“We also knew that the decision, whatever it was, would have a real impact on thousands of people, and we took our responsibility to those people very seriously,” Butts told the committee. “We respected the Attorney-General’s authority at all times, and did our jobs with integrity at all times.”
Throughout his statement, Butts repeated several times that the decision would impact around 9,000 people working for the Montreal-based engineering company, and that the potential loss of those jobs was a public policy issue.
He also offered an explanation for why Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of the justice portfolio and into veterans’ affairs, denying her assertion that the move was punishment for her refusal to succumb to pressure on the SNC file.
“The Prime Minister gave and maintained clear direction to the PMO and PCO on this file,” said Butts. “That direction was to make sure the thousands of people whose jobs were, and it bears repeating, are at risk were at the forefront of our minds at all times.”
“If anything could be done to protect those innocent people, we were told to work with the professional public service to make sure that option would be given every due consideration.”
The prime minister’s office had a view that it would be appropriate for Wilson-Raybould to get advice from a Canadian jurist or panel of jurists, since the law on remediation agreements is new and because of “the extraordinary consequences of a conviction,” said Butts.
This, according to Butts, was the entirety of the advice given to Wilson-Raybould, adding that it was made clear that she was free to accept or reject this advice and any external advice she might seek.
“It was not about second guessing the decision; it was about ensuring that the Attorney-General was making her decision with the absolute best evidence,” he said.
“When you boil it all down, all we ever asked the Attorney-General to consider was a second opinion,” he said.
He rejected the characterization of his and other staff members’ conversations with Wilson-Raybould as inappropriate pressure.
“According to the former Minister’s testimony, eleven people made twenty points of contact with her or her office over a period of close to four months,” he said. “Four of these people never met with the Attorney-General in person. In my case at least, the Attorney-General solicited the meeting.
“That is two meetings and two phone calls per month for the Minister and her office on an issue that could cost a minimum of 9,000 Canadians their job. The Minister confirmed last week that nobody ever asked her to make or not make the decision.”
Butts said his understanding of the law was that the attorney general was free to take advice and direct the public prosecution service until a verdict in the case was reached.
He said he learned for the first time that Wilson-Raybould had reached a decision on September 16 when she testified last week, and that she never communicated this to the Prime Minister in writing, as she often did with matters of importance.
Butts went onto explain how Wilson-Raybould ended up being moved into the Veterans’ Affairs post and out of justice. He said the decision was made reluctantly after Scott Brison resigned from Veterans’ Affairs, triggering a cabinet shuffle, and that Trudeau originally offered Wilson-Raybould the position of Indigenous Affairs minister, in an effort to signal how important the file was to the government. Meanwhile, Jane Philpott would be moved to the Treasury Board because of her previous experience on the file.
Philpott resigned her spot on cabinet on Monday, citing a loss of confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC matter.
According to Butts, Wilson-Raybould turned down the Indigenous affairs post, saying that she had spent her life opposing the Indian Act and couldn’t be in charge of programs administered under it.
“[Trudeau] wanted a person in Indigenous Services who would send a strong signal that the work would keep going at the same pace, and that the file would have the same personal prominence for him,” said Butts.
When Trudeau called Wilson-Raybould to inform her that she would be part of the shuffle, Butts said she said she was “a little bit shocked” because she was in her “dream job,” and that Indigenous Affairs “is not my dream job.” Wilson-Raybould said she felt she was “being shifted out of justice for other reasons”—a comment the prime minister was taken aback by, according to Butts.
“He simply replied that he was doing this shuffle because he had to, and because he thinks it’s the best thing for the government and the country,” recalled Butts. “He repeated that he wouldn’t be doing it at all if it weren’t for Minister Brison’s departure. He said when you lose a team member, everyone else has to pitch in. The call concluded.”
Wilson-Raybould, who was shuffled out of the justice portfolio in January and assigned to veterans affairs, said she believes was punishment for not acting on the SNC file.
In explosive testimony last week, Wilson-Raybould accused staff in the prime minister’s office and other senior of officials of “consistent and sustained” efforts to “politically interfere” in her prosecutorial discretion.
Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin, who have appeared before the committee before, will return in the afternoon to answer more questions.
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