TORONTO (AP) - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former top aide tried Wednesday to quell a Cabinet controversy that has shaken Canada’s government in an election year, testifying that the demotion of the attorney general had nothing to do with alleged efforts to pressure her into not prosecuting a Canadian company in a corruption case.
Gerald Butts, a close friend of Trudeau and his former principal secretary, testified before a Parliament justice committee about a scandal that led to the resignations of two high-profile Cabinet ministers and Butts himself. A spokeswoman for Trudeau announced the prime minister would take questions on the affair at a news conference Thursday.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general and justice minister, testified last week that Trudeau and senior members of his government inappropriately tried to pressure her to instruct prosecutors to avoid criminal prosecution of Montreal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin and instead require it to pay fines for alleged bribery in Libya.
Butts acknowledged officials had expressed concern that prosecution could endanger thousands of jobs, but said, “I firmly believe here that nothing inappropriate occurred here and nothing inappropriate was alleged to have occurred until after the Cabinet shuffle.”
Wilson-Raybould was demoted from her role as attorney general and named veterans affairs minister in January as part of a Cabinet shuffle and resigned weeks later.
Wilson-Raybould testified she believes she lost the justice job because she didn’t give in to “sustained” and “inappropriate pressure” to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin. That solution would have avoided a potential criminal conviction that would bar the company from receiving any federal government business for a decade. The company is a major employer in Quebec - Trudeau’s home province. It has about 9,000 employees in Canada and more than 50,000 worldwide.
“When you boil this all down, the only thing we ever asked the attorney general to do was to get a second opinion. And we also made it clear that she was free to accept that opinion, or not,” Butts said.
“The attorney general could have written or spoken to the prime minister at any time during this process to say attempts to contact her office on the matter were improper, and they should cease immediately,” Butts said. “The minister could have told the people who raised it with her that they were close to or crossing a line. The minister could have texted or emailed me at any time.”
Wilson-Raybould has said that while she considered the pressure inappropriate, she didn’t believe it had been illegal and said she was not directly told to interfere.
“It was and is the attorney general’s decision to make,” Butts said about whether to prosecute. “It would, however, be Canadians’ decision to live with,” saying more than 9,000 people could lose their jobs, “as well as the many thousands more who work on the company’s supply chain.
“The heart of the matter is that the prime minister and those around him believed that this is a real and significant public policy challenge that deserves a robust and thoughtful response.”
Butts said the SNC-Lavalin issue had nothing to do with the Cabinet shuffle, which he said was prompted by the political retirement of Treasury Board minister Scott Brison. He said Trudeau wanted to move Jane Philpott from indigenous services minister to the Treasury post and shift Wilson-Raybould, who is indigenous, to indigenous services but she refused.
Wilson-Raybould said that being attorney general and justice minister was her “dream job,” Butts testified, and that she wanted to remain in that post.
“If you allow a minister to veto a Cabinet shuffle by refusing to move, you soon will not be able to manage Cabinet,” Butts said. “My advice was that the prime minister should not set the precedent that a Cabinet minister could refuse a new position and effectively remain in one position for the life of the government.”
Trudeau ultimately moved Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs, and Butts said that days later, Wilson-Raybould accused them of being punishing her for refusing to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case.
“Trust had broken down between our office and the minister,” Butts says. “I was deeply concerned by what the minister was saying. It was all a great and sad surprise to me that she could draw those sorts of conclusions about her colleagues, including myself.”
Lisa Raitt, a lawmaker in the opposition Conservative Party, said members of Trudeau’s Liberal party had blocked efforts to call Wilson-Raybould back for more testimony.
“One of them isn’t telling the full story and we need to find out which one it is,” Raitt said.
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