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Canadian political scandal deepens as ex-justice minister testifies that Trudeau’s office pressured her in criminal case

Former Canada justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould testifies before the House of Commons justice committee in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

TORONTO — Canada’s former attorney general and justice minister on Wednesday accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office and other public servants of applying “consistent and sustained” political pressure to halt the criminal fraud and bribery prosecution of a Quebec-based construction and engineering giant.

In fiery testimony delivered before a parliamentary justice committee that was carried live on Canadian television, Jody Wilson-Raybould said the “inappropriate” political pressure campaign involved 11 people, including some who made “veiled threats” as they pushed her to offer SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement to drop the criminal charges against Montreal-based company in exchange for the payment of a hefty fine.

The first indigenous attorney general of Canada detailed a series of conversations that she or her staff had with Trudeau and other top aides to paint a picture of a relentless pressure campaign that she said made her have “thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre,” a reference to a series of resignations prompted by political pressure during the Watergate scandal.

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Her testimony comes weeks after the allegations of judicial interference were first reported by the Globe and Mail, threatening to engulf Trudeau’s government as he gears up to campaign for a tough federal election this fall.

“We’ve not seen anything like this that I can remember,” said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Alberta, who was surprised by the level of detail in Wilson-Raybould’s testimony. “This changes everything.”

Trudeau said in a press conference in Quebec on Wednesday that he “completely disagrees” with Wilson-Raybould’s characterization of events, though he conceded that he has not reviewed her entire testimony.

Andrew Scheer, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, called on Trudeau to resign and for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to launch an obstruction of justice investigation.

In the wake of the allegations, Wilson-Raybould — who was shuffled to the veterans affairs department last month in a move that was widely seen as a shocking demotion — resigned from the cabinet. So did Gerald Butts, the government’s principal secretary and a close college friend of Trudeau who is widely credited as being the architect of his electoral victory in 2015.

Wilson-Raybould said that she believed she was shuffled because she would not bow to the relentless pressure.

Trudeau initially dismissed the allegations as “false” but has since said that while he did discuss the SNC-Lavalin prosecution with Wilson-Raybould, the decision on the prosecution of the company was “hers alone” to make. He added that if she at any time felt she was being improperly pressured, she should have raised it with him directly.

In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould recalled numerous instances where she did tell him and others that the repeated engagements on the issue were “inappropriate.”

She claims that they did not stop.

She said officials repeatedly told her that a criminal conviction for the Montreal-based company could have disastrous economic and political consequences for the Liberal Party and the province of Quebec. If convicted in a criminal trial, SNC-Lavalin could face a decade-long ban on bidding on any federal contracts, which are the backbone of its business.

The stakes were not lost on the firm. According to the federal lobbyist registry, it met more than 50 times with lawmakers and members of Trudeau’s government to discuss “justice and law enforcement” issues, since it was slapped with bribery and corruption charges in 2015.

Federal prosecutors declined to offer the company a deferred prosecution agreement last fall, and Wilson-Raybould said this was when the pressure campaign began.

In one such conversation with Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould said, he told her to “find a solution” to the case because there were jobs at stake and he represents a federal riding in Quebec.

Wilson-Raybould said that this pressure campaign continued into December, when Jessica Prince, her chief of staff, was summoned to meet with Butts, who has denied improperly interfering in the matter, and Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff.

Prince, she said, told her through text messages that Butts told her, “There is no solution here that does not involve some interference,” while Telford said, “We don’t want to debate legalities anymore.”

Later that month, Wilson-Raybould met with Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council, a body that provides non-partisan advice and support to government officials. He again pressed her to halt the criminal trial.

“I warned the Clerk that we are treading on dangerous ground here,” Wilson-Raybould testified, adding that she issued “a stern warning” about the partisan political pressure.

Wernick, she said, commented that “it is not good for the Prime Minister and his Attorney General to be at loggerheads.”

In testimony last week, Wernick said while he relayed that there was anxiety about the future of the company, he did not improperly pressure Wilson-Raybould to interfere.

Last week, SNC-Lavalin reported its biggest quarterly loss in at least two decades. The company’s chief executive said that he is tired of his employees being “used as a puck in a political hockey game.”

Until Wednesday’s hearing, Wilson-Raybould had remained relatively silent on the issue. While she noted earlier this month that she would like the opportunity to speak “her truth,” she said solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality prevented her from doing so. On Monday, Trudeau waived some of the constraints that would have prevented her from speaking.

Canada’s ethics watchdog has also launched an inquiry into whether any conflict-of-interest rules were violated.

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