Canada’s ethics commissioner said Wednesday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau improperly pressured the country’s former attorney general to halt the criminal prosecution of a company, a development that could imperil his re-election chances.
The report comes just before the official start of campaigning for the Oct. 21 general election and it threatens to re-inflame a scandal that rocked the government earlier this year, causing a drop in poll ratings that had since abated.
Ethics commissioner Mario Dion said Trudeau’s attempts to influence the former attorney general and justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, were contrary to the constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence.
“The prime minister, directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms. Wilson-Raybould,” Dion wrote.
“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.”
Trudeau said at a news conference that he takes responsibility “for everything,” but said he “can’t apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs.”
Wilson-Raybould believes she was demoted from her role as attorney general and justice minister to veterans’ affairs minister in January because she didn’t give in to pressure to enter into a remediation agreement with a Canadian company accused of bribing officials in Libya.
That potential solution would avoid a potential criminal conviction that would bar Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin from receiving any federal government business for a decade. The company is a major employer with 9,000 employees in Canada and about 50,000 worldwide.
The report said Trudeau “directed his staff to find a solution that would safeguard SNC-Lavalin’s business interest in Canada.”
“What happened over the past year shouldn’t have happened,” Trudeau said. “I take responsibility for the mistakes that I made. At the same time, we learned many lessons.”
But Trudeau said he didn’t agree that any contact with the attorney general on the issue was inappropriate. He said his job is to consider the impact decisions have on Canadians.
He noted that deferred prosecution agreements are frequently used in many countries and it would be up to his new justice minister on whether the company gets one.
The scandal led to multiple resignations, including that of Gerry Butts, Trudeau’s top aide and best friend. And it damaged the party for weeks. Butts has since rejoined Trudeau’s re-election campaign team.
Opposition Conservative leader Andrew Scheer renewed calls for police to investigate and called SNC-Lavalin a “Liberal” linked corporation that defrauded some of the poorest people on earth.
Scheer said Trudeau hasn’t lived up to promises to be open and honest when he was elected.
“Trudeau may not face a court of law for his role in this scandal, but he will have to face the Canadian people over the next few weeks,” Scheer said. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said it is “examining this matter carefully with all available information and will take appropriate actions as required” and declined further comment.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said the report is very damaging and said the scandal could topple Trudeau’s Liberal government.
“The SNC-Lavalin controversy is certainly reignited and fits with the Conservative narrative that the Trudeau is no angel,” Wiseman said. “I expect the Liberals to drop in the polls by 5% or so. Whether they can recover by election day is an open question. I wouldn’t bet on it.”