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- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is embroiled in his first major scandal since taking office.
- His former Justice Minister and attorney general accused him in a recent hearing of improperly pressuring his officials to drop a major investigation into an influential construction company.
- Officials said that Trudeau tried to block them from bringing bribery and fraud charges against SNC-Lavalin because of its economic importance.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing scrutiny after former Justice Minister and member of parliament Jody Wilson-Raybould publicly accused him of trying a squash a corruption and fraud investigation into an influential Canadian construction company.
The Wilson-Raybould accused Trudeau and his aides of improperly pressuring her to seek a financial settlement with SNC-Lavalin, The Globe and Mail first reported in early February. The construction and engineering giant holds multiple contracts with the Canadian government and employees approximately 9,000 Canadians.
In her Wednesday testimony before the House of Commons’ Justice Committee, Wilson-Raybould said the government pressured the Justice Department to settle with SNC-Lavalin after prosecutors charged the company in 2015 with bribing the Libyan government during the reign of dictator Muammar al-Ghadaffi.
If found guilty of the charges, the company could be banned from doing business with the Canadian government for a decade, potentially leaving the 3,400 Quebec residents employed by SNC-Lavalin out of a job. One of Quebec’s pension funds is also one of the largest shareholders in SNC-Lavalin, owning a 20% stake in the company, the Wall Street Journal reported.
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Wilson-Raybould and other officials said the possible economic implications of the indictment were fair considerations. François Legault, Quebec’s current premier, recommended a financial settlement over concerns that the indictment would push the company to leave Canada altogether, according to the Journal.
But some Justice officials suggested that Trudeau also had political motivations to interfere with prosecutorial proceedings in order to save jobs in Quebec, a province that will be crucial for the Trudeau and his Liberal Party to carry in order to maintain control over the government in this October’s federal elections.
Wilson-Raybould testified that she "experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion" over the course of several meetings and conversations with Trudeau himself and his advisors, including top aide Michael Wernick.
Both Trudeau and Wernick have forcefully denied putting political pressure to drop the charges on Wilson-Raybould, who resigned from her position in Trudeau’s cabinet after she was moved to a lower-level role in the veterans affairs’ department amid the fallout of the scandal.
“I and my staff always acted appropriately and professionally, therefore I completely disagree with the characterization of these events,” Trudeau said of Wilson-Raybould’s testimony on Wednesday, according to the New York Times.
Wernick also disputed Wilson-Raybould’s testimony that he also applied pressure on her to drop the charges, but said that he communicated to her that "a lot of her colleagues and the prime minister were quite anxious about what they were hearing and reading in the business press about the future of the company."
While Canada’s ethics commissioner is investigating the matter to formally determine whether Trudeau improperly interfered in the probe, the scandal may already be hurting his electoral prospects.
A recent Ipsos poll found Trudeau’s approval rating declining, and the Conservative party pulling ahead of the Liberals on the generic ballot.
Pollster Darrell Bricker told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the scandal "hits at what gives the Liberal Party its appeal: the prime minister,” and could be devastating if Trudeau doesn’t re-claim control over the narrative soon.
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