Canada's top lawyer tells committee probing SNC-Lavalin scandal he's never faced improper pressure from PMO

Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti told a Commons committee today he has never faced inappropriate pressure from the prime minister or anyone in the PMO, and would take action if any official tried to direct his actions improperly.

In the hot seat today as the first witness in justice committee hearings on the SNC-Lavalin affair, Lametti said he would not "speculate" on "what others might or might not do" but would only explain how he would respond to political pressure.

"I would take, under the circumstances, a number of different actions," he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Lametti to the post in a January cabinet shuffle that demoted Jody Wilson-Raybould from the Department of Justice to Veterans Affairs.

She resigned from that position a week later, just days after the Globe and Mail reported that she had been pressured by officials in the Prime Minister's Office to stop criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based global engineering and construction firm facing charges of bribery and fraud related to contracts in Libya.

The Globe and Mail said PMO officials pressed her to direct the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to draft a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) — a legal tool resembling a plea deal — for SNC-Lavalin.

The Liberal government changed the Criminal Code in 2018 to introduce such remediation agreements as an option for cases of corporate wrongdoing in Canada.

Lametti said the legislative regime was addressing a perceived "gap" in the law and is meant to hold corporations to account while protecting bystanders who could be harmed by a criminal prosecution and possible bankruptcy — such as a corporation's employees, subcontractors and third-party suppliers.

Similar compliance tools — which can impose fines in lieu of prosecution — are also available in the U.S. and the U.K.

Lametti said he only had general knowledge of the SNC-Lavalin case before he was appointed to cabinet and did not discuss it with Trudeau before his appointment.

Nathalie Drouin, deputy justice minister and deputy attorney general, and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick are also appearing Thursday.

Conservative deputy leader and justice critic Lisa Raitt said she will grill Lametti on a Globe and Mail report published today[1] which says Wilson-Raybould told federal cabinet ministers Tuesday she believed it was improper for PMO officials to press her to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution.

Wilson-Raybould took the unprecedented step of requesting permission to address cabinet, and was allowed to do so after vigorous debate among ministers.[2]

Raitt said if the account in the Globe and Mail is accurate, Lametti has a responsibility to act.

"If he believes a former attorney general was improperly pressured — he has testimony of that from her, as was being reported by the Globe and Mail — then he has a greater burden than being loyal to the cabinet. At that point in time he's got a loyalty to the country," she told CBC News.

Fast political fallout

The political fallout since the Feb. 7 Globe and Mail report has been heavy for the Trudeau government.

The opposition Conservatives and NDP have called for a public inquiry and have demanded Trudeau waive solicitor-client privilege so Wilson-Raybould can speak freely on the matter during her appearance before the committee, expected sometime next week.

The CBC's Poll Tracker[3], an aggregation of all publicly available polls, shows the scandal is taking a toll on the Liberals. It puts the Liberals and Conservatives neck-and-neck in voting intentions and virtually tied in the number of seats each party would be likely to win if an election were held today.

On Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould abstained from a vote in the House of Commons on an NDP motion calling for an inquiry because she was personally involved in the matter. She said she can't waive client-solicitor privilege on her own. 

"I understand fully that Canadians want to know the truth and want transparency," she said. "Privilege and confidentiality are not mine to waive, and I hope that I have the opportunity to speak my truth."

Raitt said she is convinced public pressure will mount for a public inquiry.

During an event in Halifax Thursday, Trudeau said he remains "surprised and disappointed" by Wilson-Raybould's resignation from cabinet. He cited cabinet confidentiality and said the government is working to create good jobs and protect an independent judiciary.

"We will always do that in the right way," he said.

Lametti said the issue of waiving solicitor-client privilege is "complexed and layered." He said he is seeking a way to ensure transparency and fairness without compromising cabinet confidentiality or legal proceedings.

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