OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former top adviser Gerald Butts has written to the House of Commons Justice Committee requesting to testify on the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
In his letter to the chair of the committee, Butts says that he watched Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony— in which she alleged that she faced high-level « veiled threats » and political interference in the criminal prosecution of the Quebec construction and engineering company— and he believes that his evidence « will be of assistance » to the committee’s « consideration of these matters. «
Butts says that he needs « a short period of time » to receive legal advice about producing his elements and relevant documents to the committee.
His letter came as the Liberals faced a barrage of questions from the opposition in question period over Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, and as all sides gear up for an emergency debate in the Commons tonight.
Butts resigned on Feb. 18 amid this scandal. He has denied any wrongdoing and said he was leaving because he had become a distraction.
« At all times, I and those around me acted with integrity and a singular focus on the best interests of all Canadians, » Butts said in his statement. « Any accusation that I or the staff put pressure on the Attorney General is simply not true, » he said.
In her more-than-30-minute opening statement before the House Justice Committee on Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould directly implicated the prime minister as she detailed chronologically a series of communications with her office from 11 people, including senior staffers from Trudeau’s office, the Privy Council Office and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office.
Wilson-Raybould said she was subjected to a « sustained effort » between September and December of 2018, to pressure her into doing what she could as then-attorney general to instruct federal prosecutors to drop the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin and pursue a remediation agreement instead.
She refused to change her mind amid this alleged « hounding, » which she said included consistently being reminded of the potential political and job implications in Quebec.
Butts’ request to appear before the committee comes after Trudeau told reporters Thursday morning that he remains focused « on the things that really matter to Canadians,” and said he would « participate fully » in the ongoing ethics investigation that Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has undertaken on this scandal.
Trudeau pointed to Dion as the officer of Parliament who is best suited to « make a determination » on « disagreements amongst politicians, amongst elected officials. »
« So while political parties and various people are making, or trying to draw a lot of attention to this issue, there is a process… that will make a determination on what actually happened here so Canadians can be reassured that out institutions continue to function, » Trudeau said.
Questions over implicated senior staff
In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould recalled a series of interactions, based off notes she made and her own « clear » memory. One such instance was a text conversation she had with her then-chief of staff Jessica Prince about a meeting Prince had with Butts, and Trudeau’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford.
Wilson-Raybould quoted her staffer as telling her that Butts had allegedly said: « Jess, there is no solution here that doesn’t involve some interference. »
Trudeau told reporters on Thursday that the last time he had spoken with Butts was last Wednesday, two days after he resigned « to check in on my friend and see how he was doing. »
In another exchange at the committee, Wilson-Raybould named Ben Chin, who is Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s chief of staff. She said that he spoke with Prince to say that extending a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin needed to happen out of fear the company would relocate.
Facing a barrage of questions about Chin’s alleged involvement on Thursday, Morneau defended his staff saying they acted entirely appropriately and out of interest of jobs.
« My staff, appropriately, would make her staff aware of the economic consequences of decisions, » Morneau said. « I can’t speak to her views, she has her opinion. »
RCMP ‘reviewing’ Scheer letter
After Wilson-Raybould’s testimony wrapped up, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called for Trudeau’s resignation and for the RCMP to « immediately » investigate what he called « numerous examples of obstruction of justice. »
In a statement on Thursday, Scheer said that he has sent a letter to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki asking for an investigation to be launched.
« According to the facts as have been revealed in media reports, Parliamentary testimony from Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, and most significantly the recent comments of the former Attorney General, Canadians rightly ought to be concerned that criminal law has been violated, » Scheer wrote in the letter.
The RCMP have confirmed that they have received the letter and are « reviewing » it.
Trudeau said Thursday that to his knowledge none of the 11 people who Wilson-Raybould alleges were involved in the political interference in the SNC-Lavalin case have been contacted by the RCMP.
PM reflecting on Wilson-Raybould’s place in caucus
Trudeau said he is still undecided on whether or not Wilson-Raybould will continue to have a place in the Liberal caucus
« I have taken knowledge of her testimony and there’s still reflections to have on next steps, » Trudeau said Thursday.
On her way out of the committee on Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould said she will continue to serve as the MP for Vancouver-Granville, and that she doesn’t « anticipate being kicked out of caucus. »
« I was elected by the constituents of Vancouver-Granville to represent them as a Liberal Member of Parliament, » she said.
On Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould said she believes that she was shuffled out of the justice portfolio in January as a result of the SNC-Lavalin conversations, though Trudeau once again stated on Thursday that the decision made in a cabinet shuffle « involves many factors. »
Trudeau said again Thursday that the « primary » reason was the resignation of longtime Liberal Scott Brison, and had he not have left the front bench, Wilson-Raybould would still be the minister of justice and attorney general.
Next steps for justice probe
During questioning before the House Justice Committee, Wilson-Raybould suggested that future testimony from the senior officials she had named in her opening statement would be important to the committee’s work. Previous attempts from the opposition to call many of those she has named were voted down by the Liberal members on the committee.
Asked whether he’d let these people testify, Trudeau said he will respect the independence of the committee.
Throughout her testimony, she cautioned there were limitations in her ability to speak broadly about the case because of the specifics of the waiver of solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidence that Trudeau had issued. She was not able to speak about any relevant matters that occurred after she was shuffled into veterans affairs. An NDP motion to call on Trudeau to expand the conditions of the waiver was defeated when the meeting concluded.
The opposition members on the committee were keen to hold more meetings soon, possibly next week even though the House isn’t sitting, even prior to Butts’ asking to appear. His request is likely to further bolster the desire to meet.
There is also a desire from the Conservative and NDP MPs to invite Wilson-Raybould back to add to her testimony, which she signalled openness to when she was before the committee.
The MPs on the committee are currently meeting behind closed doors to discuss “committee business,” which could include the next steps for the study, including future witnesses.
I just made the following request of the Justice Committee Chair. pic.twitter.com/MUCJwnldui
— Gerald Butts (@gmbutts) February 28, 2019