In the latest twist in a scandal that has rocked the government, former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould has submitted explosive new materials to the Commons justice committee, including a recording of a tense phone conversation she had with outgoing clerk of the privy council, Michael Wernick, about whether to intervene in the corruption prosecution of Quebec engineering and construction firm SNC-Lavalin.
Here, we look at some of the most significant passages from her submission, analyzing what they mean and why they matter.
“The real issues engaged by this matter … are not, ultimately, about how things are ‘experienced,’ caucus dynamics, political ambitions, poll numbers, ‘erosion of trust’ or the role of social media. Rather, the substantive issues raised by this matter are about prosecutorial independence, the rule of law, and certain processes and institutions of our system of democracy.”
This is Wilson-Raybould setting the frame she wants her written statement — and the scandal that’s been unfolding since February — to be understood in. She presents the matter as above political considerations, and a core principle of our system of democracy. She also takes several digs at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his former principle secretary, Gerald Butts, in their various explanations of the conflict between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould as one of an “erosion of trust” and that different people can “experience” the same conversations differently.
“(Ben Chin) said ‘there has to be some middle ground here, because we are heading towards losing these guys [SNC].’ My (chief of staff) said that, when it came to prosecutorial independence, there really is no middle ground and that the role for the Attorney General here is clear.”
This is Wilson-Raybould’s recounting of a conversation between her former chief of staff, Jessica Prince, and Ben Chin, Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s chief of staff. It’s a tidy summary of the apparent conflict of PMO and Morneau’s office and the former Attorney General — on one side, the economic and job losses if SNC-Lavalin leaves town, on the other the matter of prosecutorial independence. Wilson-Raybould also says Chin told Prince to “be careful when using (his) name,” after Wilson-Raybould told Morneau that Chin and PMO adviser Elder Marques were “mucking around” on the SNC-Lavalin file.
“On the idea of bringing in external counsel to get advice, my (chief of staff) asked Mr. Butts specifically what question or questions would be asked of the external counsel. He replied, ‘Whether the AG can review the (Director of Public Prosecution’s) decision (to not offer SNC a deal) here’ and, ‘Whether she should in this case?’ My (chief of staff) asked what if the opinion comes back saying, ‘She can review it, but she shouldn’t’ or simply, ‘She can’t review it’ end of story? Mr. Butts stated, ‘it wouldn’t say that.’ ”
One of Butts’ central points in his defence of PMO’s interactions with Wilson-Raybould’s office on the SNC file was that they were simply asking her to get an outside opinion on whether or not she could intervene and grant SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement. Wilson-Raybould and her chief of staff seem to be indicating here that there was never any doubt, in PMO’s mind, what that advice would say.
“I had a telephone call with the Clerk, Michael Wernick, on December 19, 2018 … Normally, when I take an important call like this, I would often have a staff member with me to take notes, but in this case, I was alone in our condo in Vancouver. I was anxious to ensure that I had an exact record of what was discussed as I had reason to believe that it was likely to be an inappropriate conversation. So while I typed out notes during the phone call, I took the extraordinary and otherwise inappropriate step of making an audio recording of the conversation without so advising the Clerk.”
Wilson-Raybould seems to pre-empting criticism here that surreptitiously recording her phone conversation with Michael Wernick without his knowledge was inappropriate. She says that she had “never done (this) before this phone call and have not done since.” She said that she recorded it to ensure her notes of the conversation were accurate and, given previous interactions with PMO and the Clerk on the SNC-Lavalin file, her “strong suspicion” that the situation would continue to escalate.
She also said she’s releasing the full transcript in direct response to Wernick’s “repeated assertions that he made no threats to me veiled or otherwise. “The recording allows the members of the committee and the public to decide for themselves.”
Wernick: Alright … um … well I am going to have to report back before he leaves … he is in a pretty firm frame of mind about this so … I am a bit worried …
Wilson-Raybould: Bit worried about what?
Wernick: Well … it is not a good idea for the Prime Minister and his Attorney General to be at loggerheads.
Wilson-Raybould: Well I feel that I am giving him my best advice and if he does not accept that advice then it is his prerogative to do what he wants … But I am trying to protect the Prime Minister from political interference or perceived political interference or otherwise.
Wernick: Alright, I understand that … but he does not have the power to do what he wants … all the tools are in your hands so …
Wilson-Raybould: … OK so then … so I am having thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre here Michael to be honest with you and this is not a great place for me to be in …”
This section is from the transcript of the Dec. 19 conversation between Wernick and Wilson-Raybould which most clearly demonstrates the perceived threat — that Trudeau would remove Wilson-Raybould as Attorney General if SNC did not get a prosecution deal. Wilson-Raybould references the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Richard Nixon’s Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General resigned rather than fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate at Nixon’s command.
“Ok the shite is going to hit the fan”
A text message from Jody Wilson-Raybould’s to her former chief of staff, Jessica Prince, after the December 19 phone call with Michael Wernick.
“As part of these conversations (around January’s cabinet shuffle) I did state to both of them (Trudeau and Butts) that I believed that this shift was being made because of a decision I would not take in the SNC-Lavalin DPA matter, which they denied. After much reflection, I decided to take the Prime Minister at his word … However, I did make another decision at this time — that I would immediately resign if the new Attorney General decided to issue a directive in the SNC-Lavalin matter …”
Wilson-Raybould confirms the rough outline of the conversation around her shuffle from Minister of Justice to Veterans’ Affairs Minister described by Butts in his testimony. As of Friday night, Attorney General David Lametti had not issued any such directive in the SNC-Lavalin case.
“The Prime Minister stated publicly when issues about the propriety of the government’s conduct in relation to the SNC matter arose that my ongoing presence in Cabinet spoke for itself. I resigned the next day and I trust my resignation also speaks for itself.”
Wilson-Raybould confirmed she spoke with Trudeau before a Feb. 11 press conference in Vancouver, where Trudeau suggested that Wilson-Raybould’s continued presence in cabinet was a sign of confidence in his leadership. The following day she resigned.
“Ultimately Canadians will judge the importance and meaning of what has transpired, and changes and reforms may flow from that. I do think there are clear lessons that have to be considered around the role of the Attorney General, the principles underpinning our democracy, and the appropriate role of political considerations in decision-making, particularly regarding legal questions.”
Wilson-Raybould ends by saying she doesn’t know that she has anything else to offer a “formal” process — such as another appearance at the House of Commons’ justice committee — but says the entire episode has offered an opportunity to strengthen democratic institutions, particularly around the intersection of legal and political issues.
“A significant part of the public dialogue about this matter has touched on issues of race and gender and, in particular, there have been undeniable elements of misogyny, much of it aimed at myself. While this is unfortunate, and unpleasant, I also see the benefits this entire episode can bring to building a stronger Canada, and strengthening our civil society.”
Unnamed Liberal MPs took shots at Wilson-Raybould in the news media, referencing both her gender and her Indigenous background. Here she fires back, saying for “each cynical commentator and commentary, I estimate I have encountered 10 Canadians thinking and acting about what these events mean for the future they are helping to build.”
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga