Canada PM denies pressuring minister to be lenient with SNC-Lavalin

OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday denied a newspaper report that his office had tried to pressure the former justice minister to intervene in the prosecution of engineering and construction firm SNC-Lavalin Group.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during the opening session of the Lima Group meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

“The allegations reported in the story are false,” Trudeau told reporters in Toronto. “At no point did we direct the attorney general, current or previous, to take any decision whatsoever in this matter.”

The Globe and Mail, citing unnamed sources, said Trudeau’s office had pressed then-Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in a corruption and fraud case against SNC-Lavalin, but she had refused to ask prosecutors to make a deal with the company to avoid a costly trial.

Wilson-Raybould was unexpectedly shuffled out of her role last month and given the more junior post of veterans’ affairs minister. The same day she issued a statement saying the justice system must be “free from even the perception of political interference.”

The matter could become a problem for Trudeau, who faces a tight race against the official opposition Conservatives in an election this October.

Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer said the allegations were “very serious”.

Reuters has not independently verified the claims.

Wilson-Raybould declined to comment on the Globe’s story. SNC also declined to comment.

Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin is facing fraud and corruption charges related to allegations that former executives paid bribes to win contracts in Libya under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, which fell in 2011.

SNC has argued it should be allowed to avoid a trial because the executives accused of wrongdoing have left the company and it has overhauled ethics and compliance systems.

Nathan Cullen, a legislator from the opposition New Democrats, noted SNC-Lavalin admitted in 2016 that some former executives had illegally arranged donations of more than C$80,000 to the Liberals from 2004 to 2011.

“SNC-Lavalin was rewarded when they faced corruption and fraud charges. The Liberals leaned on their own justice minister not to go to trial but get a plea deal,” he said in the House of Commons.

Reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa,; Tyler Choi and Allison Martell in Toronto and Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by James Dalgleish