Ex-aide to Canada PM denies wrongdoing over SNC-Lavalin; Trudeau to address crisis

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A former top aide to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denied on Wednesday inappropriately pressuring a Cabinet member to help a major company as Trudeau planned to address a scandal that is threatening his prospects in an October election.

Gerald Butts, who quit last month as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief aide, arrives to testify to the House of Commons justice committee, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, February 6, 2019. REUTERS/Patrick Doyle

Allegations that Gerald Butts, who resigned last month as Trudeau’s principal private secretary, and other officials tried to help construction company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc avoid a corruption trial are fueling the crisis that has cost the Liberal government two senior Cabinet ministers.

Some nervous Liberal lawmakers complain Trudeau’s office has taken too long to respond to a scandal that deepened last week when former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she and her staff had been subjected to persistent pressure.

Trudeau will take questions about the matter at an 8 a.m. (1300 GMT) news conference in Ottawa on Thursday.

“He will speak directly to the issues,” spokeswoman Eleanore Catenaro said, giving no details of what Trudeau might say.

Butts told the House of Commons justice committee he had one short conversation on Dec. 5 with Wilson-Raybould about SNC-Lavalin.

“I did not and I do not see how our brief discussion on that file constituted pressure of any kind,” Butts said. “I am firmly convinced that nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government.”

SNC-Lavalin faces trial on fraud charges relating to bribes the company is said to have offered to Libyan officials to influence the awarding of contracts between 2001 and 2011.

The company had hoped to benefit from a new law that would have allowed it to escape with a large fine. Wilson-Raybould had the power to scrap the decision to go to trial, but decided against it.

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The firm, which employs 9,000 people in Canada, is based in the province of Quebec, where Trudeau’s Liberals have said they need to pick up seats to win October’s federal election.

Wilson-Raybould, unexpectedly demoted to the veterans affairs ministry in January, quit on Feb. 12 after less than a month in her new job.


Liberal legislators on the committee appeared relieved after Butts testified, telling reporters he had clearly done nothing inappropriate. Opposition members, who want a public inquiry into the affair, were unconvinced.

“How can you be credible to us when Ms. Wilson-Raybould gave us such clear consistent testimony of a pattern of interference in an independent prosecution?” asked legislator Charlie Angus of the left-leaning New Democrats.

Wilson-Raybould told the House justice committee last week that 11 officials and ministers contacted her and her office a total of 20 times over four months about the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Butts said: “That is two meetings and two phone calls per month for the minister and her office on an issue that could cost a minimum of 9,000 Canadians their job.”

A second member of Trudeau’s Cabinet resigned on Monday, saying she had lost confidence in how the government had dealt with the matter. Treasury Board President Jane Philpott was one of the most respected members of government.

Wilson-Raybould, who also served as Canada’s attorney general, had complained that Michael Wernick - head of the non-partisan federal civil service - made veiled threats to her in December as he stressed the need to settle the matter.

“I did not threaten the attorney general,” an often combative Wernick told the committee later on Wednesday.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa and Matt Scuffham in Toronto; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Peter Cooney