Obstruct, Cover up, and Fearmonger

Grant A. Brown
March 1, 2019
Jody Wilson-Raybould’s account of a PMO-PCO plan to spike the SNC-Lavalin criminal prosecution and cover it up with planted media op-eds is gobsmacking enough. But it’s the simultaneous fearmongering about fake news and political violence that escalates this way beyond a garden variety Liberal corruption scandal. After all, the Trudeau government is also planning to invest $600 million in pliant media and promising to filter election news coverage. Tony Soprano, meet Joe Stalin. Grant Brown reports.

Obstruct, Cover up, and Fearmonger

Grant A. Brown
March 1, 2019
Jody Wilson-Raybould’s account of a PMO-PCO plan to spike the SNC-Lavalin criminal prosecution and cover it up with planted media op-eds is gobsmacking enough. But it’s the simultaneous fearmongering about fake news and political violence that escalates this way beyond a garden variety Liberal corruption scandal. After all, the Trudeau government is also planning to invest $600 million in pliant media and promising to filter election news coverage. Tony Soprano, meet Joe Stalin. Grant Brown reports.
Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter

It is worth revisiting the opening statement to the Justice Committee by Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, in light of later revelations from former Attorney-General (AG) Jody Wilson-Raybould to the same Committee a week later.

Some of what Wernick said seemed completely off topic at the time, such as this: “I’m deeply concerned about my country right now and its politics and where it’s headed. I worry about foreign interference in the upcoming election and we’re working hard on that… I worry about the trolling from the vomitorium of social media entering the open media arena.” Why is reassuring Canadians that the Liberal government is working hard on the problem of fake news relevant to an inquiry into prosecutorial independence in the SNC-Lavalin (SNC) affair?

Wilson-Raybould described in detail efforts made by the Prime Minister’s Office to implement a plan to manoeuvre around the decision of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Kathleen Roussel, not to negotiate a remediation agreement (RA) with SNC-Lavalin. The plan involved obtaining a legal opinion from an “eminent person” to the effect that the DPP was mistaken in deciding that the company’s situation was not a good case for a RA. This opinion would be used as the basis for Wilson-Raybould to issue a directive to Roussel to negotiate with SNC.

In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould quoted Trudeau’s Chief of Staff, Katie Telford, as saying, “If Jody is nervous [about implementing the PMO’s plan], we would of course line up all kinds of people to write op-eds saying that what she was doing is proper.” In fact, as Wilson-Raybould’s testimony made abundantly clear, the PMO’s plan was anything but “proper.” In short, to provide cover for using a bought-and-paid-for legal opinion from an “eminent person” the PMO would flood the mainstream news media with bought-and-paid-for political op-eds.

Katie Telford is married to Rob Silver. Rob Silver, in addition the being a regular panelist on CBC’s Power & Politics program, is a founding partner at Crestview Strategies. Crestview specializes in “mobilization campaigns,” which involve the manipulation of public opinion through the mobilization of activists and opinion-mongers. One wonders on how many stories the PMO had successfully employed Telford’s news-doctoring strategy in the past? And on which issues?

This casts into a new light the Liberal government’s plan to promote a tier of “respectable” – meaning Liberal-friendly – journalist outlets through government subsidies to the tune of $595 million. Why go to all the trouble of mobilizing a horde of op-ed writers whenever you want to promote a Liberal initiative, when you can own the “open media arena” outright?

Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick waits to testify before the House of Commons Justice Committee in Ottawa. (Image: Chris Wattie / Reuters)

This also casts into a new light the Liberal government’s plan to monitor social media for fake news during this year’s election campaign. It’s not fake news that Wernick and the PMO are concerned about; they seem to be the most dangerous source of it. What concerns them is real news that hurts the Liberal brand – like the widespread and growing anger across the country over Bill C-48, Bill C-69, and the carbon tax, represented by the “United We Roll” convoy and rally at Parliament Hill on the very day of Wernick’s testimony.

And what did Wernick have to say about this very real, grass-roots uprising against the Liberal government? He raised the spectre of political violence and assassinations.  Alluding to comments by Conservative Senator David Tkachuk at the rally urging the defeat of Liberal MPs in this year’s election, he said, “I think that it’s totally unacceptable that a member of the Parliament of Canada would incite people to drive trucks over people, after what happened in Toronto last summer.”

Finally getting to the point of the hearing, Wernick went on to say, “In the matter of SNC-Lavalin, it is now seven years since the first police raid on the company, four years since charges were laid by the RCMP, and during that entire time, up to today, the independence of the investigative and prosecutorial function has never been compromised.” Maybe. But it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould stated that Roussel had reached her decision not to negotiate a RA with SNC on September 4. A mere two days later, Ben Chin, the Chief of Staff of Finance Minister Bill Morneau, was already hounding Wilson-Raybould’s Chief of Staff, Jessica Prince, to change this outcome, citing electoral politics in Quebec as the motivating reason. (“Protecting jobs” would ultimately become the public excuse.) How did the Chief of Staff of a completely unrelated ministry know almost immediately about the DPP’s every move?

The next day, Prince phoned the Deputy Minister of Justice, who told her she was already working on some “options” for getting around Roussel’s unwelcome decision. Wilson-Raybould certainly hadn’t asked her Deputy Minister to “work on options” for circumventing Roussel’s decision, since she was content with it. Where did the Deputy Minister of Justice get this direction from, then, if not from political operatives outside the ministry’s chain of command?

Jody Wilson-Raybould appears at the House of Commons Justice Committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Image: iPolitics/ Matthew Usherwood)

On September 11, according to Wilson-Raybould, Chin contacted her office again, relating information he had acquired from SNC about the way the matter was developing, including details from Roussel’s letter to SNC. He relayed how SNC’s lawyer, retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci, had responded to it. Iacobucci was of the view that this wasn’t a final decision but a “negotiation” – i.e. a negotiation to negotiate a RA on terms that SNC would be willing to accept.

It gets worse. On September 16, Prince received a phone call from Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques from the PMO. They revealed that SNC had made further submissions to the Crown Prosecutor. It must be explained at this point that the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) is a large legal department, headed by the DPP. The DPP does not actually handle the day-to-day correspondence between litigants on every file; rather, individual Crown Prosecutors are responsible for the conduct of prosecutions, and the DPP’s role is to assign cases, review important decisions, and liaise with the AG.

What Bouchard and Marques told Prince next is stunning. They said that the Crown Prosecutor assigned to the case wanted to negotiate a RA with SNC, but that Roussel didnot. This is stunning because what goes on inside the PPSC is supposed to be kept strictly confidential. Discussions among the staff lawyers in the PPSC, and between those lawyers and the DPP, are protected not only by solicitor-client privilege, but also by litigation privilege. Yet somehow, the PMO was able to tell the Chief of Staff of the AG things that the AG apparently didn’t even know about what discussions were happening among the lawyers in her department. Who breached privilege to give this inside information to the PMO?

The kicker is that the PMO was at the same time deeply involved in detailed communications with SNC – the defendant – on the very same matter. How can we be sure that privileged information within the PPSC was not passed on to SNC Lavalin by friends of friends of friends of lobbyists within the Liberal government?  Is it just a coincidence that by the middle of October, SNC had filed an originating notice in the Federal Court (Trial Division) seeking judicial review of the DPP’s decision not to negotiate?

Somehow the PMO was able to tell the Chief of Staff of the AG things that the AG didn’t even know about discussions among the lawyers in her department. Who breached privilege to give this inside information to the PMO?

Recall the PMO’s aforementioned plan to circumvent Roussel’s decision, which involved obtaining an external opinion from an “eminent person” on its soundness. The justification being given to Wilson-Raybould for seeking that external opinion was alleged dissension among the lawyers in the PPSC about the merits of a RA. The way to resolve the disagreement was to obtain an independent, expert legal opinion on the matter – one that could be considered more authoritative that either the individual Crown Prosecutor assigned to the case (who wanted to negotiate) or the DPP (who didn’t) – and which would magically come down on the side of the PMO’s preferred option. How could anyone see political interference in the prosecutorial function in any of that?

Wernick claimed in his opening statement that:

The only communications with the director of public prosecutions about the potential use of a deferred prosecution agreement, an instrument provided for by legislation, were conducted by the minister, as is appropriate. In this matter, the law is, that you as parliamentarians created, around ethics and government are demonstrably working. The prosecutor is independent. The lobbying act worked as intended. The ethics commissioner self-initiated his own process. In other words, the shields held. The software that is supposed to protect our democracy is working.

Wernick could not possibly know what he asserts in the first sentence quoted. Nor does it support the conclusion he arrives at. If Wilson-Raybould’s testimony is proven to be accurate, then inappropriate illegal, and possibly criminal communications transpired between members of the PMO and someone inside the PPSC, and potentially between the PMO and SNC as well. The opposition has asked the RCMP to investigate for obstruction of justice. At the very least, ethics in government is demonstrably absent. Our “democratic software” is manifestly not working.

If the PPSC remains independent, it is only due to the difficult and principled stand taken by Wilson-Raybould in the first instance, and ultimately due to the anonymous source who leaked the story to the Globe & Mail which brought this travesty to light. If not for the leak, by now the current AG would likely have issued the much sought after directive to negotiate with SNC, and Wilson-Raybould would have resigned from Cabinet without being at liberty to say why. No wonder Wernick was so eager to vomit all over the Globe & Mail report, saying it “contains errors, unfounded speculation and, in some cases, is simply defamatory.”

The only part of Wernick’s opening statement that seems truly apropos to the whole affair is this: “I’m deeply concerned about my country right now and its politics and where it’s headed.”

Grant A. Brown has a DPhil from Oxford University and an LL.B. from the University of Alberta. He taught applied ethics and political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge in the 1990s, and practiced family law in the 2000s. He currently runs a B&B in Stratford, Ontario.

Love C2C Journal? Here's how you can help us grow.

More for you

The Private Sector Must Get a Larger Role in Canadian Health Care

Canada has so far ducked the extreme growth in the Covid-19 hospitalization and mortality rates afflicting some other countries. The worst is certainly still to come, however – and when it does, the shortfall in Canada’s health care capacity will be laid bare. The vulnerability was largely avoidable, points out Gwyn Morgan, if Canada like nearly all other countries had only allowed private health care delivery alongside its public system. When the nation comes out the other side of the pandemic, Morgan writes, a health care policy reckoning will be long overdue.

Future of Conservatism Series, Part V: Could Canada Handle a Trumpian Populist?

Democratic politics must continue even in times of war. Despite suspension of the federal Conservative leadership race amidst the coronavirus, members and supporters still need to think about how to shape their party and pick the right leader to best meet the many challenges of our era. C2C Journal has looked at revived Red Toryism, at uncompromisingly principled conservatism and at the decidedly compromised but successful Harper way. We have sought insight from abroad. And now we turn to populism. Barry Cooper applies his usual fearless thinking and cheerful bluntness to evaluate whether the Canadian political landscape has become hospitable terrain to a Canadian Trump.

Want More Affordable Housing in Canada? Build More Houses

Solving Canada’s housing crisis shouldn’t require more than a single lesson in economics. When prices are high, a free market always responds and supplies more. Yet amidst Canada’s severe problems of housing affordability, this foolproof mechanism is continually frustrated by governments that are either ignorant of how markets work, fixated on preserving the status quo or display naked contempt for the profit motive. Peter Shawn Taylor looks at the scorn heaped on land developers, landlords and the rest of the housing supply industry and wonders how they became the villains of this story.

Thinking Clearly in a Time of Panic

How should the conservative mind respond to the coronavirus pandemic? Panic and despair are in ample supply, and the urge to succumb appears widespread. Others have steered, via deliberate ignorance, to fatalism, though the walls are closing in on such rebels. Both extremes are beneath thoughtful conservatives. C2C Editor-in-Chief George Koch counsels that however dark today might appear, the eternal search for objective truth – the foundation for all conservative thought – is the first necessary step along the path to seeing humankind through to brighter days.

Future of Conservatism Series Part IV: Rallying the World’s Centre-Right Parties

As Canada’s Conservatives evaluate leadership hopefuls and ponder what their party is about and which path might lead to electoral victory, it’s easy to ignore international politics. They should take a look, for the world holds dozens of established centre-right democratic parties, and many are tackling challenges of relevance and adaptation at least as steep as those burdening Canada’s Conservatives. John Weissenberger travelled to Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the International Democrat Union (IDU) and provides his assessment in this essay. Later this year, once international travel is restored, Weissenberger heads to Vienna to deepen his understanding at the IDU’s 2020 Forum.

Averting “Climate Poverty” for Canada’s Middle Class

Pursuing grandiose visions tends to cloud judgment, and when the vision is saving our very planet from an apprehended climate crisis, it’s little surprise that numbers are fudged, logic is twisted, the hardest-hit are ignored and entire social classes are cast into the trash. Matthew Lau, however, refuses to be dazzled by dreams. In this article, Lau remains rooted in reality and fixed on crunching the numbers to come up with some arresting conclusions about the huge costs of government climate policies to working people here and now, set against marginal if not ephemeral benefits to come over the next 80 years.

Share This Story

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on print

Donate

Subscribe to the C2C Weekly
It's Free!

By clicking SUBSCRIBE, you agree to receive emails from C2C Journal. You can unsubscribe at any time.