OTTAWA – Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould was cautioned about a potential “collision” with the prime minister over the SNC-Lavalin file, by outgoing Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, a newly-released audio recording reveals.
According to an audio recording of a conversation that the pair had, submitted to the House Justice Committee by Wilson-Raybould, Wernick said he was worried what might happen if Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould remained at “loggerheads” about whether or not to offer a deferred prosecution agreement to the Quebec engineering firm.
In the audio, Wilson-Raybould can be heard issuing repeated and stern warnings that senior officials’ pressuring of her in regards to the SNC-Lavalin case was “going to look like nothing but political interference,” if it had been successful and the Quebec engineering company was granted the deal that many had been lobbying for.
She said she was absolutely confident in her decision and in response, Wernick said he was “worried about a collision then because he is pretty firm about this. I just saw him a few hours ago and this is really important to him.”
The 17-minute audio file has been provided to all members of the House Justice Committee, as part of the new and supplementary evidence related to the SNC-Lavalin scandal that she handed over days ago.
The secret recording is of a Dec. 19 phone call with Wernick that both parties have previously testified to. In the recording Wilson-Raybould can be heard saying that she was trying to protect Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by issuing these cautions about prosecutorial independence.
She said the way the case was being handled “screams of” political interference and that while she agrees jobs are important, the issue is how it would look if federal prosecutors dropped the criminal charges of fraud and corruption, in exchange for a remediation agreement.
“I feel that I am giving him my best advice. And if he doesn’t accept that advice then it’s his prerogative to do what he wants. But I’m trying to protect the prime minister from political interference, perceived or otherwise,” she said.
Wernick in the conversation can also be heard saying that he “respects” where Wilson-Raybould was coming from, but that Trudeau’s view was that “he’s not asking you to do anything inappropriate or to interfere. He’s asking you to use all the tools that you lawfully have at your disposal, Wernick said.
“You’re not just being attorney general, you’re the minister of justice and a cabinet [minister] – and, you have context within which you exercise your roles and your responsibilities. Like, I’m not seeing anything inappropriate here,” Wernick can be heard saying.
The 43-pages of additional material also includes a written statement, as well as well as screen shots of text messages and copies of emails that she referenced during her initial testimony.
The evidence has been uploaded to the committee’s website. Chair of the committee, Anthony Housefather, has said that « no redactions have been made » to Wilson-Raybould’s submission by the committee, though there are portions of the submission that appear to have been redacted by Wilson-Raybould before it was submitted.
Wilson-Raybould, who is still a member of the Liberal caucus, provided this evidence to further bolster the testimony she gave to the committee on Feb. 27, and to respond to contradicting stories that others have offered since her appearance.
RECORDING OF CALL WITH WERNICK
During her initial testimony on this phone call, Wilson-Raybould said she was alone and took the call from home. She said that Wernick wanted to communicate where Trudeau was at regarding the file, and spoke about the company potentially moving its headquarters.
She quoted him saying “I think he is going to find a way to get it done, one way or another….So he is in that kind of mood, and I wanted you to be aware of it.”
When asked about this call during his follow up testimony, Wernick said that it was not his recollection of that call. “I did not wear a wire, record the conversation or take extemporaneous notes,” Wernick said.
“I never raised partisan considerations at any time. I reminded her repeatedly that she was the final decision-maker. I did not attempt to influence her decision. I was giving her relevant context about public interest considerations for a decision that was hers to take. I never suggested consequences for her,” Wernick testified.
“I said that I was having thoughts of the Saturday night massacre, but that I was confident that I had given the Prime Minister my best advice to protect him and to protect the constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence,” she testified, referencing the night when senior justice officials under then-U.S. President Richard Nixon resigned, amid the Watergate scandal. This statement was verified by the audio recording.
In the recording you can hear her taking a deep breath before the conversation begins.
“I actually feel really uncomfortable having this conversation because it’s wrong,” Wilson-Raybould says on the tape.
“Does he understand the gravity of what this potentially could mean? This is not just 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 asks Wernick about Trudeau.
“Well I don’t think he sees it as that,” Wernick said, offering that it was a case of people talking past eachother.
“Well then nobody’s explaining that to him, Michael,” she replied.
The conversation ended with Wilson-Raybould saying that she was “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” and that « I am not under any illusion how the prime minister has and gets things that he wants. I am just stuck doing the best job that I can. »
In her written submission Wilson-Raybould said she recorded the conversation because she “I had reason to believe that it was likely to be an inappropriate conversation.” She said she had never done this before, and has not done so since.
“I did this simply to ensure that my notes were accurate and given the ongoing pressure and attempts to interfere in this case, the nature of conversations that had occurred… and my strong suspicion that this matter would continue to escalate in even more inappropriate ways,” she wrote.
NEW EVIDENCE COMES AFTER EXTENSIVE TESTIMONY
In her testimony more than a month ago, Wilson-Raybould detailed what she considered to be months of high-level « veiled threats » and political interference from nearly a dozen senior government officials. She alleged that this was in an effort to have her instruct federal prosecutors to drop the criminal prosecution of the Quebec construction and engineering giant and pursue a remediation agreement instead.
In her initial hours-long committee appearance she offered an in-depth account of approximately 20 exchanges –10 phone calls and 10 meetings — specifically on the SNC-Lavalin case. She also worked through a chronology of communications, ranging from in-person meetings and phone calls, to text messages and emails, from 11 senior staffers from the Prime Minister’s Office, Privy Council Office and the finance minister’s office.
In the opening remarks of the new documents, Wilson-Raybould says her view is that the real issues at the heart of the SNC-Lavalin scandal are not about “how things are ‘experienced’” or considerations like caucus dynamics, political ambitions, or poll numbers. Rather she says it is about prosecutorial independence, the rule of law, and Canada’s democratic institutions.
The opposition wanted to invite Wilson-Raybould back to testify again — something she was open to — but Liberal MPs on the House Justice Committee shut down the study, saying that they’d heard all they needed to.
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 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had issued.
What she has handed over to the committee stays within the lines of what is permitted in the waiver, which includes any relevant information related to the case against SNC-Lavalin over her years-long tenure as attorney general.
Since her testimony, Trudeau has faced calls to resign, the House of Commons agenda has been largely usurped by opposition-prompted procedural moves, and several other high-profile officials have resigned amid insistence that nothing improper occurred.
With files from CTV News’ Graham Slaughter