OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke ethics laws when he tried to pressure then justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the criminal case against SNC-Lavalin, the ethics commissioner ruled in a devastating report Wednesday.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion concluded that Trudeau’s interventions in the case violated the section of the act that prevents him from using his position to influence a decision in a way that would improperly advance “another person’s private interests,” in this case, SNC-Lavalin.
The timing of the ruling — which was released barely a month before the start of the federal election campaign — could hardly be worse for the Liberals, who had been hoping that the SNC-Lavalin controversy had finally died down after dominating the news cycle at the start of the year.
Instead, the conclusions of the ethics commissioner put the Liberal government under an ethics cloud once again.
The controversy revolves around criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin and a desire by Trudeau and senior aides to have the Director of Public Prosecutions grant the company a deferred prosecution agreement. That would have spared the Quebec engineering firm the risk of a criminal conviction and, with it, the threat of losing lucrative government contracts.
The decision rested with Wilson-Raybould, who decided early on that she was not going to proceed on that route. Trudeau pressed the then-justice minister to rethink her decision, interventions that the prime minister later justified by saying thousands of jobs were at stake.
But Wilson-Raybould thought the interventions were inappropriate and a serious breach of prosecutorial independence. She would not change her mind and ultimately was shuffled out of the justice portfolio in January. She quit cabinet the following month.
Dion said that the SNC-Lavalin had “significant financial interests” in getting a deferred prosecution agreement.
“These interests would likely have been furthered had Mr. Trudeau successfully influenced the Attorney General to intervene in the Director of Public Prosecutions’ decision. The actions that sought to further these interests were improper,” he wrote.
Dion ruled it doesn’t matter that the attempts to influence Wilson-Raybould’s decision were not successful.
He found that senior officials in Trudeau’s office improperly continued, without the knowledge or involvement of Wilson-Raybould, to have discussions with lawyers for SNC-Lavalin even after the start of legal proceedings.
He said Trudeau and his officials violated the principle of prosecutorial independence and crossed a line when they “put forward partisan political considerations to the attorney general in relation to a criminal prosecution.”
Dion also slams the Privy Council Office — the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office — for withholding documents he considered necessary for his probe. He said the PCO constrained nine witnesses from giving full evidence.
“I believe that decisions relating to my access to such information should be made transparently and democratically by Parliament, not by the very same public office holders who are subject to the regime I administer,” Dion wrote in his report.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier