Canada legislators reject probe into government officials over ethics woes

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A Canadian parliamentary committee on Wednesday rejected an opposition bid to question senior officials about allegations of political interference involving a construction company that are becoming a problem for Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

FILE PHOTO: Canada's Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould listens to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

Former Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould quit unexpectedly on Tuesday after a newspaper reported she had been pressured by Trudeau’s team to go easy on SNC-Lavalin Group Inc last year when she was justice minister and attorney general.

The House of Commons justice committee, dominated by Liberal legislators, defeated an opposition motion to question Wilson-Raybould as well as two top aides in the prime minister’s office.

It later voted to call three other witnesses - current Justice Minister David Lametti and two senior civil servants - and discuss next steps at a closed-door meeting next week.

Opposition legislators note Lametti declared last week he saw no evidence to justify a probe into potential wrongdoing and say they need to hear from officials, not bureaucrats.

The televised meeting maintained the pressure on Trudeau, who faces a tough re-election battle this October.

Lawmakers from the official opposition Conservatives decried what they said was a cover-up.

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“If the Liberals think that this issue is going to be smothered by what they did today, then they’re kidding themselves. We will be relentless on this matter,” deputy party leader Lisa Raitt told reporters.

Liberal legislator Randy Boissonnault dismissed the idea the party had something to hide, saying: “If we wanted a cover-up, we would have declined the motion in 10 minutes.”

The Globe and Mail reported last week that Trudeau officials urged Wilson-Raybould to allow SNC-Lavalin to avoid a corruption trial on charges of bribing Libyan officials and escape with a fine instead.

Wilson-Raybould - who has said nothing about why she quit - was demoted to veteran affairs minister in a January Cabinet shuffle. The Globe said she had resisted pressure to help the firm avoid a trial.

Speaking in the Ontario city of Sudbury, Trudeau repeated his insistence the government had done nothing wrong.

“If anyone, any minister including the former attorney general, felt that we were not living up to that standard, it was her responsibility to come and speak to me directly about that. She did not do that,” he said.

Trudeau notably broke from tradition and did not thank Wilson-Raybould for her service.

Wilson-Raybould, one of the most prominent aboriginal politicians in federal politics, was only the third woman justice minister in Canadian history and there are signs some in the party are upset by her departure.

Fellow Cabinet minister Jane Philpott tweeted: “You taught me so much - particularly about Indigenous history, rights and justice ... I know you will continue to serve Canadians.”

SNC-Lavalin is a major employer in the populous province of Quebec, where the Liberals say they need to pick up seats to have any chance of winning a majority in October’s election.

The company is seeking to avoid a corruption trial because it says the executives accused of wrongdoing have left the company and it has overhauled ethics and compliance systems.

Reporting by Julie Gordon and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Peter Cooney