Gerald Butts, former right-hand man to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is disputing key parts of the testimony given last week by former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould over the SNC-Lavalin affair, saying there’s a “grey area” between her independence and the role of political staff.
He says all officials ever did was ask her to “consider a second opinion” on the potential 9,000 jobs he suggested were on the line.
“I think there’s a grey area in what would as political considerations,” the former principal secretary and longtime Trudeau friend told the House of Commons justice committee studying explosive allegations first published by the Globe and Mail last month.
WATCH BELOW: Gerald Butts’ full statement to the Commons justice committee
That report said top government officials attempted to politically interfere in the decision by former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould not to intervene to save the Montreal company from criminal trial and potential conviction.
Wilson-Raybould has since corroborated those reports, telling the same committee she faced a “consistent and sustained effort” over four months to pressure her into changing her mind. She resigned from cabinet on Feb. 12.
Treasury Board president Jane Philpott also resigned on Monday in a blow to the government, saying she had “lost confidence” in their handling of the matter.
“I am not here to quarrel with the former attorney general or say a single negative word about her personally. What I am here to do is give evidence that what happened last fall is very different from the events you got last week,” Butts said in his opening statement, saying officials were told to make sure every consideration was given to how to protect SNC-Lavalin workers — but to respect her independence.
WATCH BELOW: Why did Gerald Butts resign if he feels the government did not err?
“A breakdown in the relationship between the former attorney general and the prime minister occurred. That breakdown coloured the unrelated events of the fall of 2018 in a negative light for many of the people involved,” said Butts. “As the main point of contact in the PMO for the former minister of justice, I take responsibility for it.”
He continued, adding that “the prime minister gave and maintained clear direction to the PMO and PCO on this file. That direction was to make sure the thousands of people whose jobs were, and it bears repeating, are at risk were at the forefront of our minds at all times.”
“If anything could be done to protect those innocent people, we were told to work with the professional public service to make sure that option would be given every due consideration,” Butts added, saying that at no time did Wilson-Raybould communicate to him that her decision not to intervene was final.
“All we ever asked the attorney general to do was consider a second opinion.”
WATCH BELOW: Butts says Wilson-Raybould never communicated her final decision to PMO
He also pushed back at the description of several key meetings made by Wilson-Raybould during her testimony at the same committee last week.
One of those was of a Dec. 18, 2018, meeting between himself, Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, and Jessica Prince, former chief of staff to Wilson-Raybould.
Wilson-Raybould read out text messages from Prince describing that meeting.
WATCH BELOW: Butts says government considered SNC-Lavalin case a public policy problem
She said Butts told Prince when she had raised concerns about political interference that “there is no solution here that does not involve some interference.”
Butts disputed that characterization.
“I don’t think I would have used the word solution because it’s not one I would have used in this context,” he said, adding he and Telford had asked if Wilson-Raybould would consider legal advice from someone like former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin.
“No I did not say that,” Butts also added when pressed by opposition members about the reference to interference in the description given by Wilson-Raybould of that conversation with Prince.
WATCH BELOW: Highlights of Gerald Butts’ testimony before justice committee
As well, he disputed the description given by Wilson-Raybould of a Dec. 5, 2018, meeting the two had at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa.
Wilson-Raybould told the committee that she said to Butts at that time she needed everyone to back off and that continued engagements with her on her decision not to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case were inappropriate.
She said Butts told her he didn’t like the law that would require any decision to intervene to be made public.
“Gerry talked to me about how the statute was a statute passed by Harper and that he does not like the law,” Wilson-Raybould said in her testimony. “I said something like that is the law that we have.”
WATCH BELOW: Butts describes moment Trudeau told Wilson-Raybould she would be moved to Indigenous Affairs
Butts pushed back, saying Wilson-Raybould never indicated her decision was final and that he raised the fact the law was passed by Harper as “a chronological point, not a political one.”
He also said his understanding of the law is that until a verdict is reached by a court, any decision whether to intervene or not can be changed.
Specifically, he said anyone in the attorney general role was “obliged” to consider new information and told the committee, “I don’t think it was possible for her to have her decision made.”
But he said he “was not aware” of any specific new evidence that might have compelled her to consider changing her mind.
He added “it was incumbent on her to hear it” if others had advice they wanted to put before her up until the moment a court verdict was given.
He also rejected descriptions of her interactions with other senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, senior advisers Elder Marquez and Mathieu Bouchard, saying that “it just doesn’t ring like something they would do on this or any other matter.”
WATCH BELOW: Butts says officials wanted Wilson-Raybould to make decision with ‘best evidence possible’
Butts also rejected the assertion by Wilson-Raybould that she believed her move from attorney general to Minister of Veterans Affairs was directly because of her refusal to intervene to make sure SNC-Lavalin got a deal to avoid trial.
Butts described efforts by top officials to try and get Scott Brison, former president of the Treasury Board, to reverse his decision to resign, which he says had been communicated to them in December 2018.
When Brison returned after the holidays without doing so, Butts says Philpott was the natural choice to replace him because she had been vice-chair of the cabinet committee on the Treasury Board.
That left an opening at her old portfolio of Indigenous Services, one he says Trudeau wanted to make sure was filled by someone who could communicate that the issue remained a priority for his government, and that “the only person who could do that was Ms. Wilson-Raybould.”
When Trudeau told Wilson-Raybould of his decision to move her to that file, Butts said “there was a large pause on the phone.”
Butts said Trudeau told her “everyone had to pitch in” after the loss of Brison in cabinet.
WATCH BELOW: Jody Wilson-Raybould’s full statement to Commons justice committee
Shortly after, Wilson-Raybould turned down the post, telling Butts she had spent her life working as an Indigenous politician opposed to the Indian Act and could not take on a portfolio responsible for managing the legislation she fundamentally opposed.
“I should have known that,” Butts told the committee, but said even if that was the case, the fact she turned down the job meant she needed to be moved.
“My advice was this: if you allow a minister to veto a cabinet shuffle by refusing to move, you soon won’t be able to manage a cabinet.”
Wilson-Raybould was then moved from attorney general into the lower-profile portfolio vacated by Seamus O’Regan, who took on the Indigenous Services job.
— More to come …
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