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EDITORIAL: Probing the interference allegations

Trudeau sent a stronger than usual message as he alluded the near-trade war Canada and the United States are currently embroiled in. "We're standing up for Canada," he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses an audience in Wolfville, N.S., about trade differences between Canada and the United States in this 2018 photo. — SaltWire Network file photo

Right now, it’s about answers.

Ever since last Thursday’s story in the Globe and Mail raising questions about whether the Prime Minister’s Office interfered in some way with the prosecution of Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, questions have swirled about what might have taken place.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed the Globe story was inaccurate — but the denial was couched in such careful legalese that it could be accurate even if interference had occurred. Former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has been essentially gagged, unable to speak about what happened; as government’s most senior lawyer, solicitor-client privilege means she can’t talk, unless the government gives her permission to speak.

But at the heart of the mess is special rules for companies who get caught breaking the law — rules that let them admit guilt, but never have a conviction placed on their record.

Put it this way: if you were charged with a crime, the option wouldn’t be available to you.

It’s a recent addition to the Canadian justice system, tucked into the federal budget last May. The plan was to let corporations have special status under the law; effectively, admit crime, pay fines, but never actually be convicted, thereby allowing the company to go on bidding for federal work.

But at the heart of the mess is special rules for companies who get caught breaking the law — rules that let them admit guilt, but never have a conviction placed on their record.

As SaltWire Network columnist Russell Wangersky wrote at the time, “Why should a corporation be allowed to buy a get-out-of-jail-free card? If criminal acts can be dealt with by simply fessing up, cutting a cheque and promising that you’ll do better, is there really any meaningful deterrence on the table? That’s just making the commission of a crime into a business decision, balanced on the scale of profit and loss, rather than right and wrong.”

But if the new rules stank, what’s being alleged now is even worse. The question is whether or not senior officials in the government pressured Wilson-Raybould to let the giant Quebec company apply for a deferred prosecution agreement, instead of facing full prosecution — even though SNC-Lavalin was charged in 2015, before the new rules existed.

Politicians or political staff interfering with the administration of justice is a serious charge and should be fully investigated — full stop.

And until that’s done, and those questions are answered, there’s a clear ethical stain on the Trudeau government.

Another question that might be addressed? Just why it is that deferred prosecution agreements were included in, of all things, a budget bill, precisely when it turned out that SNC-Lavalin might be needing to avail of the opportunity?

In other words, could it be that the PMO not only pushed to get SNC-Lavalin a special deal, but also actually built a mechanism to create that special deal in the first place?

Something stinks.

And it’s going to stink until there’s more than careful denials.

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