OTTAWA—Jody Wilson-Raybould is sticking by her refusal to speak about allegations that she was pressured by prime minister’s top aides to seek mediation instead of pursuing criminal charges against Quebec construction giant SNC-Lavalin.
As opposition Conservatives and New Democrats called for emergency parliamentary committee hearings into the allegations, Wilson-Raybould issued a statement Friday which offered no comment on — nor denial of — the allegations, for the second day in a row.
“As the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, I am bound by solicitor-client privilege in this matter,” she said in the statement released by her office.
Wilson-Raybould’s decision to remain silent came after Conservatives and New Democrats announced they will try to summon Justin Trudeau’s top officials and cabinet ministers — including the former justice minister, who for now remains in cabinet — before an emergency meeting of a parliamentary committee.
They say they want to get answers into allegations the PMO tried to politically interfere in a case in order to lift the threat of a criminal conviction facing the Quebec engineering and construction giant, one that could hobble its ability to bid on future contracts.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer announced the move Friday morning, saying the allegation “calls into serious question the ethics and conduct of those at the highest levels.”
“Today we’re taking the next step in pressing for answers,” he said.
The opposition parties want to call nine people as witnesses, including Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff; Gerald Butts, his principal secretary; Justice Minister David Lametti; Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick; and Wilson-Raybould.
The next moves now lie with the prime minister. The government can block the opposition request for a parliamentary study because it holds a majority. It can also free Wilson-Raybould to speak.
Although Wilson-Raybould has turned aside all interview requests and claims to be bound by confidentiality around her role as past minister, several legal experts say the privilege belongs to the client, in this case the government, and it is within the government’s power or choice to waive it, in order to allow the air to be cleared on damning allegations.
Writing on Twitter, lawyer Paul Champ said the government can waive the privilege, “and if this was a court of law, I would say that they already did waive by Trudeau commenting on it.”
On Thursday, the Globe and Mail reported that senior PMO officials pressed the former justice minister to seek mediation instead of pursuing criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin.
Trudeau adamantly denied the story that Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of the justice portfolio after she refused pressure from his office to recommend the public prosecutor pursue a remediation agreement, instead of criminal charges, against SNC-Lavalin.
Trudeau said the allegations anyone in his office “directed” her to take a particular decision on SNC-Lavalin’s criminal case were “false.” However, the newspaper report, citing unnamed sources, did not claim she was directed or instructed, but that she faced pressure from unidentified senior aides in Trudeau’s office.
The attorney-general can direct the independent prosecutor’s office in such cases, under a new law that allows so-called “deferred prosecution agreements,” but must supply reasons in writing which must be published in the Canada Gazette, the government’s official record of decisions.
However an overriding principle in Canada’s justice system is that nobody — not the prime minister, his delegates, nor anyone else — should influence, pressure or direct the justice minister to do anything when it comes to prosecutorial decisions.
Opposition MPs continued Friday to attack the prime minister’s response as tightly scripted legalese. Scheer said that Trudeau fell short of “full transparency,” prompting the call for a committee investigation.
“If the prime minister has nothing to hide, as he has suggested, then should have no reason to fear these individuals appearing before the justice committee,” Scheer said.
But it’s not clear the committee will get off the ground. That’s because Liberals hold the majority of seats and can bar the opposition motions for next week’s hearings.
If the Liberals block the move, then “Canadians could only conclude that reports of political interference are true,” Scheer said.
“We are convinced that there is more to see here,” Scheer said, adding that the party is looking at other legal options if oppositions efforts to gets answers in Parliament are frustrated.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc