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:
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.
So if Wilson-Raybould’s version of events is any indication, Butts will be called 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. 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.
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. They referenced a possible call with the prime minister and the clerk 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 prosecutor not to mediate SNC-Lavalin’s criminal charges. Prince said that would be “interference.” Butts replied, “Jess, there is no solution here that does not involve some interference.”
Butts will be challenged on this statement.
Charles Bird, a principle 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.
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.”
Finally, Deputy Justice Minister Nathalie Drouin, will appear at the committee for the second time.
In her own testimony, Wilson-Raybould said she raised concerns about the “appropriateness” of outside communications on the SNC issue with Drouin. But it appears that Drouin was also a target of those communications. Wernick, for example, spoke to Drouin who said that Wilson-Raybould could speak to the director of public prosecutions. “I responded by saying no, I would not, that that would be inappropriate,” the former justice minister said.
Early on, Drouin prepared “options” for Wilson-Raybould on the file.
Wilson-Raybould says she instructed Drouin not to get in touch with the director.
Drouin may be asked why she didn’t want a copy of the briefing note from the director of public prosecutions setting out her reasons for proceeding with the criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin, rather than a mediated agreement. According to Wilson-Raybould, sections of the note were read to Drouin but she did not want a copy.
“I think she’s going to get a lot less attention than Wernick, but it looks like it’s going to be the same perceived problem. That the public service has pressed beyond a boundary that they shouldn’t cross,” said Moscrop.
But Bird, the Earnscliffe principal, said in his experience the best civil servants are those who are aware of political considerations and that such awareness isn’t automatically inappropriate.
“Many argue that the most important relationship in government is between a minister and his or her deputy minister,” said Bird.
In her testimony last week, Wilson-Raybould also suggested Drouin was expected to get Quebec MP David Lametti up to speed on the SNC file after he become justice minister in the January shuffle. Wernick told Drouin that “one of the first conversations the new minister will be expected to have with the prime minister would be on SNC-Lavalin,” Wilson-Raybould recalled for the committee. That may prompt MP questions about the briefing Drouin gave Lametti on the file.
“Right now as it stands, I think most people think they’ve been provided with a one-sided account of what occurred,” said Alvaro. “Each of these individuals, as they provide their testimony, will help to fill in some of those gaps that exist.”
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier