A former key aide to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is at the centre of a major political crisis, on Wednesday denied he had pressured the then-justice minister to allow a major firm to avoid a corruption trial last year.
Gerald Butts, addressing an incident that has cost Trudeau two senior cabinet ministers so far, said he had one short conversation with the minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, about helping construction company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
“I did not and I do not see how our brief discussion on that file constituted pressure of any kind,” Butts told the House of Commons justice committee. “I am firmly convinced that nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government.”
Butts quit as Trudeau’s principal private secretary on February 18. The incident could threaten the ruling Liberals’ chances of retaining power in an October election.
Wilson-Raybould told the House of Commons justice committee last week that Butts and other senior officials had subjected her to persistent and inappropriate pressure to help SNC-Lavalin evade a trial on charges of bribing Libyan officials.
“What happened last fall is in fact very different from the version of events you heard last week,” Butts said.
Wilson-Raybould said 11 officials and ministers had contacted her and her office a total of 20 times over four months about the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“That is two meetings and two phone calls per month for the minister and her office on an issue that could cost a minimum of 9,000 Canadians their job,” said Butts.
SNC-Lavalin, its international arm and another subsidiary are accused of having offered $36m in bribes to Libyan officials and of defrauding the Libyan government of $96m.
The charges relate to the world’s largest irrigation scheme – the Great Man Made River Project – to provide fresh water to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte.
The firm, which employs 9,000 people in Canada, is based in the province of Quebec, where Trudeau’s Liberals need to pick up seats to win a federal election set for October.
A second member of Trudeau’s Cabinet resigned on Monday, saying she had lost confidence in how the government had dealt with the matter. Treasury Board President Jane Philpott was one of the most respected members of government, and political observers described her departure as a major blow.
Wilson-Raybould told the committee last week that Butts had told her chief of staff there was no solution to the matter without some interference.
“That is not what I said,” Butts responded, when asked about the allegation.
Trudeau denies the allegations, saying he made clear to Wilson-Raybould that any decision on the case was hers alone.
‘Nothing to do with 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.
Butts said on Wednesday 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.”
Although some nervous Liberal legislators say Trudeau needs to make changes to his inner circle and that there is a lack of communication from top aides, a government official said the prime minister would not make major strategy changes.