OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau and a key Liberal caucus leader are attempting to cast doubt on the need for a judicial inquiry into allegations of political interference by the Prime Minister’s Office in the bribery and fraud trial of SNC-Lavalin.
Hours before a formal vote on an NDP motion demanding an inquiry, the prime minister entered a Liberal caucus meeting shortly after former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould — whose silence on whether she was pressured by the PMO has bedevilled the Trudeau government.
Trudeau dismissed suggestions by the Opposition that there was a coverup in the making when he allowed Wilson-Raybould to address cabinet a day earlier. He said it was important that ministers heard her viewpoint.
“I think it’s extremely important that everyone have an opportunity to hear the different perspectives in this situation,” Trudeau said.
“That’s why we welcomed her going forward to the parliamentary committee and that’s why frankly we are getting advice from the current attorney general and she’s getting advice from her counsel about what can be talked about that’s not covered by privilege,” he said.
“At the same time obviously she had asked to speak to her former cabinet colleagues and that’s exactly what she did.”
Wednesday’s caucus, like an emergency teleconference call last week, was restricted to MPs only, with no staff permitted to attend as the Liberals grapple with one of the most serious crises to hit the government — one that has cost it a cabinet minister and Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts.
Trudeau was expected to address the issue again with his MPs, an official said.
Speaking to reporters, Trudeau deflected questions whether a public inquiry was needed, suggesting an investigation by the federal ethics commissioner and hearings by the Commons’ justice committee were sufficient.
“The parliamentary committee is seized with it. We’ll be hearing from her (Wilson-Raybould), we’ll be hearing from experts, we’ll be hearing from a range of people. It will make the determination who it needs to hear from,” Trudeau told reporters.
“I think it is important that there be an airing on this situation at the same time as we continue to work on a broad range of big issues.”
However, Wilson-Raybould raised doubts that she’d be able to say anything of substance to the Commons justice committee, although she has said she’d be willing to testify now that it voted to summon her.
“I respect the committee process,” said Wilson-Raybould. “I want to be able to be ensure that I am confident in what I can and cannot say so I am continuing to do that.”
Wilson-Raybould left her post at veterans affairs last week, quitting the Liberal cabinet and offering no public explanation.
Since allegations published in the Globe and Mail on Feb. 7, she has refused to confirm or deny Trudeau’s claim that there was no political pressure put on her to offer a deferred prosecution to SNC-Lavalin.
As she walked through a crush of reporters on Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould again refused to explain why she resigned.
“No. As I’ve said — and I know this is frustrating for many people — I am committed to ensuring that I know what I can and cannot say, hence I’m getting legal advice, as I’ve told you, around privilege.”
Wilson-Raybould was also vague about why she was permitted to attend cabinet a day earlier. “I wanted to make myself available if cabinet wanted to talk to me,” was all she would say.
The former justice and veterans affairs minister signalled she was prepared to speak to her caucus colleagues: “I am going to attend caucus as I usually do and we’ll see how the conversations go.”
However, she said she had “no comment about that” when asked for her reaction to the Monday’s resignation by Butts, who continues to deny that anyone in the PMO ever pressured Wilson-Raybould to offer a deal to SNC-Lavalin.
As for the prospect of a judicial inquiry, Liberal caucus chair Francis Scarpaleggia said, “Personally, I don’t see a need for one.
“The ethics commissioner and the Commons justice committee are already looking into the matter,” he said. “I think the justice committee is going to do a good job and the ethics commissioner has opened an investigation, and I have a lot of faith in the justice committee.”
Scarpaleggia said he expects Wilson-Raybould to be forthcoming in her explanation of what’s happened. “If she’s said she’s willing to come before the committee I’m sure she’ll be able to speak to some extent,” he said.
Still, the hearings by the justice committee fall short of what the Conservatives and New Democrats are demanding.
While Liberal MPs on the committee relented and agreed Tuesday to invite Wilson-Raybould to testify, they used their majority on the committee to shoot down opposition efforts to have Trudeau’s own aides, including Butts, testify as well.
The committee has agreed to begin its hearings with testimony from legal experts, followed by Justice Minister David Lametti, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick and the deputy justice minister, Nathalie Drouin.
Those committee hearings were due to begin Wednesday but the afternoon meeting was cancelled because of trouble arranging witnesses.
Trudeau and Butts admit they each spoke to Wilson-Raybould about the SNC-Lavalin request that the attorney-general enter negotiations toward a “remediation agreement” that would spare the company the consequences of a criminal conviction while requiring it to pay a fine and agree to a corporate compliance regime. A conviction would limit the company’s ability to bid on federal contracts.
But since the report first broke, the Trudeau government has adamantly denied any pressure or direction was given to Wilson-Raybould.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier