VANCOUVER—British Columbia’s former attorney general Geoff Plant says Friday’s release of a secretly recorded phone call to former federal attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould has embroiled the legal community in ethical debates — but has further exposed a “deep fracture at the heart” of the Liberal government.
The Dec. 19 phone conversation between then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould and Canada’s highest non-partisan civil servant has sparked controversy among legal experts, including in Wilson-Raybould’s home province of B.C.
“It’s a sign of something seriously fractured inside the heart of the government,” said Plant, who served as the BC Liberals’ attorney general and justice minister after the party took power in 2001. “The taped phone call has raised some legal discussion about whether that was the right thing to do, but, for me, the question is why someone who is a Cabinet minister feels it’s necessary to record a conversation with the Clerk of the Privy Council in the first place.
“That feels to me from outside as evidence of a fairly serious trust problem where the attorney general said no and the prime minister kept asking. There is a confidence and trust gap. To me, it’s more about the basic political integrity of the government.”
In a recording submitted Friday with extensive notes Wilson-Raybould took related to a criminal corruption prosecution against Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, she tells Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick that she would not cave to pressure to drop those charges in favour of a “deferred prosecution agreement” with the company.
“I don’t know any lawyer who records conversations with work colleagues or clients. I don’t get the covert ops program or holding on to the tape for a convenient moment,” his lawyer said on Friday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau initially said reports he or his staff had pressured Wilson-Raybould were false, but later said he was defending 9,000 jobs with SNC-Lavalin in Quebec from leaving the country.”
In the recording, Wilson-Raybould said, “This is not about saving jobs. This is about interfering with one of our fundamental institutions. This is like breaching a constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence.”
Wilson-Raybould defended her reasons for not overturning the independent prosecutor’s decision to proceed against SNC-Lavalin. But she came under fire from some lawyers for recording Wernick’s call — especially since she is essentially the government’s lawyer in her role as attorney general.
“I took the extraordinary and otherwise inappropriate step of making an audio recording of the conversation without so advising the Clerk,” she said in a written submission to the federal justice committee, to which she gave explosive testimony last month, but which has ruled out inviting her back to respond to other accounts of the affair. “This is something that I have never done before, this phone call, and have not done since. I did this simply to ensure that my notes were accurate and given the ongoing pressure and attempts to interfere in this case.”
In the 17-minute recording, submitted earlier but only publicized Friday, she told Wernick, an officially non-partisan civil servant who is not supposed to engage in party business, that the issue had forced her into “not a great place” in her role.
“But what I am confident of is that I have given the prime minister my best advice to protect him and to protect the constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence,” she told Wernick.
After being repeatedly told Trudeau was adamant on the matter, Wilson-Raybould ended the phone call with Wernick seemingly aware of how the situation might end.
“I am not under any illusion how the prime minister has and gets things that he wants,” she said.
David P. Ball is a Vancouver-based reporter covering democracy and politics. Follow him on Twitter: @davidpball