OTTAWA—An international economic organization that oversees global anti-bribery efforts says it’s concerned by allegations that Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and senior officials tried to interfere in the criminal case against SNC-Lavalin, pointedly warning Canada about its obligations to safeguard independent prosecutions.
“It’s still at the stage of allegations but even this is enough for us to be concerned,” said Drago Kos, a senior anti-bribery official with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“We are not so much interested in the decision of the prosecutor, this agreement or not. That has to be an autonomous decision of the prosecutor which should not be influenced by anybody,” said Kos, the chair of the OECD working group on bribery.
“This is the point of our concern,” he told the Star in a telephone interview.
And Kos said the excuse used by Trudeau and others for their interventions — that they were concerned about jobs at SNC-Lavalin — is not a legitimate justification.
The independent director of public prosecutions had decided to proceed with the criminal charges and though Wilson-Raybould had the power to direct a mediated deal, she decided not to.
And yet “inappropriate” interventions from high-level officials continued through the fall, said Wilson-Raybould, who was shuffled out of the justice portfolio in January.
The revelations have prompted the opposition Conservatives to ask the RCMP to investigate whether the interventions crossed legal lines.
Trudeau last week admitted that he asked Wilson-Raybould to “revisit” her decision but made no apologies for speaking with her on the issue last September.
“I stressed the importance of protecting Canadian jobs and reiterated that this issue was one of significant national importance,” he said, a theme he highlighted during a news conference.
But Kos said that rationale is not a legitimate justification under the OECD’s convention on combating bribery of foreign public officials in international business transactions.
That convention specifically says that the investigations and prosecutions “shall not be influenced by considerations of national economic interest, the potential effect upon relations with another state or the identity of the natural or legal persons involved.”
Canada is a signatory to the convention. Canada adopted similar language in the section of the Criminal Code dealing with remediation agreements. Also called deferred prosecution agreements, the deals allow criminal proceedings against a company to be halted with no criminal conviction registered. But in exchange the company must agree to an admission of wrongdoing, pay a hefty fine, and allow outside oversight of its ethical compliance.
However, in his own committee testimony, Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council, gave a different interpretation, saying that “ national economic interest” is meant to prevent favouring one country over another in a prosecution.
“If you’re part of this group in the OECD, you cannot favour or let a company off because it helps France versus Germany, or Germany versus Italy, or Canada versus the United States,” he said.
“My view is that the economic impacts of jobs — and it’s explicitly in the Criminal Code, the impact on suppliers, pensioners, customers, communities — is a relevant public interest consideration,” Wernick told the justice committee last Wednesday.
Not so, Kos told the Star.
“Those are the exactly the elements which should not influence the prosecutorial decisions,” he said. “That is exactly the requirement of the convention.”
That was underscored by the group’s statement on Monday. It noted that as a party to the convention, Canada is committed to abiding by its rules, “which requires prosecutorial independence in foreign bribery cases.
“In addition, political factors such as a country’s national economic interest and the identity of the alleged perpetrators must not influence foreign bribery investigations and prosecutions,” the statement said.
In the wake of the allegations, the federal ethics commissioner has launched an investigation and the Commons’ justice committee is holding hearings. The committee meets Wednesday to decide whether to recall Wilson-Raybould to testify a second time.
The OECD working group said it is “encouraged” by the two “processes,” and “notes that the Canadian authorities stress that they are transparent and independent.” It said it would “closely monitor” developments in the controversy.
The organization voiced its concerns publicly Monday — and in a private letter to the federal government. The organization declined to release the letter but said it has asked Canada to respond to the concerns at the next meeting of the working group in June.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said that as a founding member of the OECD anti-bribery convention, “Canada has a long history of combating bribery and corruption.”
“We acknowledge the concerns raised today by the OECD Working Group on Bribery. We will continue to work with and update the working group on the robust and independent domestic processes currently underway in Canada, which the working group has recognized and encouraged,” Adam Austen said.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier