OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated Canada’s conflict of interest law by improperly seeking to influence a criminal prosecution, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has concluded.
Dion’s investigation concerned allegations raised by former Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould that senior government officials put pressure on her to defer the prosecution of construction firm SNC-Lavalin on bribery and fraud charges.
“I find that Mr. Trudeau used his position of authority over Ms. Wilson-Raybould to seek to influence her decision on whether she should overrule the Director of Public Prosecutions’ decision not to invite SNC-Lavalin to enter into negotiations towards a remediation agreement,” Dion’s report says.
“Because SNC‑Lavalin overwhelmingly stood to benefit from Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s intervention, I have no doubt that the result of Mr. Trudeau’s influence would have furthered SNC-Lavalin’s interests. The actions that sought to further these interests were improper since the actions were contrary to the constitutional principles of prosecutorial independence and the rule of law.
“For these reasons, I find that Mr. Trudeau contravened section 9 of the (Conflict of Interest) Act.”
That section of the act states that public office holders are prohibited from using their position to seek to influence a decision to improperly further the private interests of a third party, either by acting outside the scope of their legislative authority, or contrary to a rule, a convention or an established process.
The report specifically says that “Mr. Trudeau directed his staff to find a solution that would safeguard SNC-Lavalin’s business interests in Canada.” Dion calls the tactics used “troubling,” and says the evidence “abundantly shows that Mr. Trudeau knowingly sought to influence Ms. Wilson-Raybould both directly and through the actions of his agents.”
“As Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau was the only public office holder who, by virtue of his position, could clearly exert influence over Ms. Wilson‑Raybould,” the report says. “The authority of the Prime Minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson‑Raybould as the Crown’s chief law officer.”
“The evidence showed that SNC-Lavalin had significant financial interests in deferring prosecution,” the report says. It outlines the steps SNC-Lavalin took starting in early 2016 to lobby the government to adopt a deferred prosecution law — essentially an out-of-court settlement where the company cooperates with prosecutors and agrees to take compliance actions, but avoids a criminal conviction.
The government held a public consultation in 2017 on whether to adopt a deferred prosecution law, and the provision was eventually inserted into the 2018 budget implementation bill, which was passed into law in June 2018.
But the law still meant that federal prosecutors had the discretion to decide whether to invite SNC-Lavalin to negotiation a deferred prosecution (called a remediation agreement in Canadian law). Director of Public Prosecutions Kathleen Roussel decided on Sept. 4, 2018, not to issue an invitation and to proceed with the criminal prosecution. Wilson-Raybould saw no reason to overrule Roussel’s decision.
In explosive testimony before the House of Commons Justice Committee earlier this year, Wilson-Raybould said she and her office were subjected to a campaign of pressure from senior government officials to overrule Roussel. She specifically named Prime Minister’s Office advisors Gerald Butts, Katie Telford, Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques in her testimony, and cited conversations with then-Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and Trudeau himself. In early January, she was removed from her cabinet role as justice minister and attorney general.
Trudeau and his staff have steadfastly denied they did anything wrong — although Butts still resigned in February, saying he didn’t want to be a distraction and wanted to fully clear his name. They said they were confident the ethics commissioner would clear them of wrongdoing, a prediction that has now turned out to be wrong.
Dion’s report also says he was denied access to sensitive government information during his investigation by Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart.
“During this examination, nine witnesses informed our Office that they had information they believed to be relevant, but that could not be disclosed because, according to them, this information would reveal a (cabinet) confidence,” he wrote in the report.
“In a letter dated June 13, 2019, the Clerk of the Privy Council declined my request for access to all Cabinet confidences in respect of this examination. Mr. Trudeau’s legal counsel indicated that the decision on whether to expand the waiver was made by the Privy Council Office without the involvement of the Prime Minister or his office.”
This is the second time the ethics commissioner’s office has found Trudeau to have violated the Conflict of Interest Act — a fact reflected in the title of the report, which is “Trudeau II.”
In December 2017, then-Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson concluded Trudeau improperly accepted an all-expenses paid trip to the Aga Khan’s private island for a family vacation in 2016. Trudeau had argued the Aga Khan was a close personal friend, which would have allowed an exception to the rules, but Dawson rejected that explanation.
“Because there was ongoing official business between the Government of Canada and the Aga Khan at the time each invitation was accepted, Mr. Trudeau, as Prime Minister, was in a position to be able to advance some of the matters of interest to the Aga Khan,” that report concluded. “For these reasons, I determined that the vacations accepted by Mr. Trudeau or his family might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau.”
Following the release of that report, Trudeau accepted the findings and apologized. “I should have taken precautions and cleared my family vacation and dealings with the Aga Khan in advance,” he said at the time. “I’m sorry I didn’t, and in the future, I will be clearing all my family vacations with the commissioner’s office.”