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TRNN’s Dimitri Lascaris, former class actions lawyer who pursued SNC-Lavalin in court, discusses the PMO’s legal exposure

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SPEAKER: Did you or anyone in your office pressure the former attorney general to abandon the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin?

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: The allegations in the Globe story this morning are false. Neither the current nor the previous attorney general was ever directed by me or by anyone in my office to take a decision in this matter.

SPEAKER: With regards to the statement that was made in the Globe story saying that–and you’re saying now that the PMO did not direct in any way. But the question is whether it was any sort of influence. Are you saying categorically there was absolutely no influence or any pushing whatsoever in this?

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: The allegations reported in the story are false. At no time did I or my office direct the current or previous attorney general to make any particular decision in this matter.

SPEAKER: But not necessarily direct, Prime Minister. Was there any sort of influence whatsoever?

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: As I’ve said, at no time did we direct the attorney general, current or previous, to take any decision whatsoever in this matter.

[TRNN Intro]

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada is under extreme pressure from the opposition and the media after the Globe and Mail, one of the major national newspapers in Canada, broke a story that the Prime Minister’s Office pressured former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the prosecution of a multinational construction company. The company, known as SNC-Lavalin, were being prosecuted on charges of fraud and corruption. When the Justice Minister refused, the Globe and Mail claimed that she was demoted. Here is some of the debate in Parliament today, on Friday.

CANADIAN MP: Did anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office, at any time, communicate with anyone in the former Attorney General’s Office on the matter of the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, yes or no?

CANADIAN MP: As the Prime Minister has said earlier today, these allegations are false.

CANADIAN MP: She spoke truth to power behind closed doors, and the Prime Minister fired her. Will she now speak truth to power in front of all Canadians?

SPEAKER: Neither my predecessor nor myself has received directives with respect to the dealing of this particular case.

CANADIAN MP: Did the Prime Minister fire the Attorney General because she refused to do his dirty work, yes or no?

SPEAKER: No such direction was given to my predecessor. No such direction has been given to me.

CANADIAN MP: When the now former justice minister refused to drop the fraud and corruption trial against SNC-Lavalin, she was fired. Again, did anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office communicate with the former Justice Minister about this case, yes or no?

SHARMINI PERIES: On to talk about all of this with me today is Dimitri Lascaris. Dimitri is a lawyer and journalist. Dimitri was a leading class action lawyer in Canada, and in 2012 Canadian Law magazine named him one of the 25 most influential lawyers in Canada. And before leaving his practice, Dimitri prosecuted a $1 billion securities fraud class action case against SNC-Lavalin, the corporation at the center of this controversy. Dimitri, good to have you with us.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Good to be back, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri, let’s start with the company at the middle of this controversy that you prosecuted.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, SNC-Lavalin is Canada’s largest engineering company. It is based in Montreal, where Justin Trudeau is from. It has a lot of political influence during the period in question. It’s a rather lengthy period that the company was embroiled in corruption around the world, and I’ll come back to that in a moment. There were some very influential and powerful people on the board, including Gwyn Morgan, the chairman of the board, who was in charge of a major oil company in Canada for a number of years; Lorna Marsden, who was in charge of–was president of two universities in Ontario, including York University; was promoted to the Senate by Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau. That’s the Canadian Senate.

So it’s a powerful company. It’s a big company. And it has friends in high places. This company, in the last ten years or so, became embroiled in a world wide corruption scandal. The matter that is now, is capturing the attention of Canada, is related to Libya. The company was charged criminally in Canada for paying bribes to the Gadhafi regime, or members of the Gadhafi regime, to try to obtain lucrative contracts in Libya. But the criminal prosecution here in Canada is rather limited relative to the scope of the overall corruption within this company. There has been corruption or credible allegations of corruption involving its operations in Algeria, its operations in Mozambique, in Uganda, in Bangladesh, and in Quebec itself, where the company was involved in major corruption scandal involving the McGill University Hospital Center, a huge hospital project in Montreal.

So this company was literally infested with people who were engaging in bribery, and there were credible allegations that it was known at the highest levels of the corporation, at the board level, that the company was doing this across the globe; that it was using bribes in order to obtain lucrative business. So I think it’s fair to say–and I as you indicated, I know this because I prosecuted this class action for a number of years–that this is arguably the worst case of corporate corruption in Canadian history. And what is now being alleged is that Justin Trudeau’s government, a very serious allegation, was essentially trying to prevent this company from being convicted of any criminal offense in Canada, in what was arguably the worst corporate corruption scandal in Canadian history.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, Dimitri, tell us about the Globe and Mail article, and what it unveiled, and what it claimed about the Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, it’s important to understand, because–you know, those clips you played at the outset, that the government representatives, including Justin Trudeau, keep using the word ‘directed,’ or ‘direction.’ That is not with the Globe and Mail alleged, and the Globe and Mail itself has pointed this out in its article. It did not allege that the Prime Minister’s Office, which is comprised of political appointees, advisers to the prime minister, not lifetime civil servants who are supposed to be non-partisan. It didn’t allege that these people directed the Justice Minister, Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister, to protect SNC-Lavalin. What it alleged, the Globe and Mail, based upon a number of sources which it did not identify–it was not able to identify because they wouldn’t go on the record–was that she was subjected to heavy pressure.

And this is very important, because the criminal code of Canada doesn’t require for you to be convicted of obstruction of justice under the Criminal Code of Canada. You don’t have to direct a member of the justice system, an agent of the justice system, to do something. What you have to do is influence them in any manner. That is the language of the Criminal Code employs. In any manner. And you don’t have to succeed. All you have to do is attempt it. So it’s a very broad provision. So for example, if they made the Justice Minister, led her to believe that she might be demoted–and she was demoted to Veterans Affairs, a minor portfolio compared to the justice ministry, after this happened–then that would constitute, quite arguably, quite persuasively, influencing the course of justice, to the detriment of the justice system. They don’t have to direct that she do anything. They have to influence in any manner. And that question–and this is very important. Even though the Globe and Mail has not been at liberty to disclose its sources, the questions that have been put to the Prime Minister, as to the questions that have been raised by the Globe and Mail, have been put to the Prime Minister repeatedly. He and his fellow members of the Liberal government refused to answer them directly. They will not do so. And for that matter, neither will the now-demoted Justice Minister, who occupies the portfolio of Veterans Affairs. She has not come on the record and said “I wasn’t pressured. I was not influenced in any way to intervene in order to protect this company from these rather egregious corruption allegations.”

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri, the media and the legal community is abuzz because the Liberals–that’s the party of Justin Trudeau–had introduced a certain clause into the legislature that allowed them to actually do this, which is to yield to negotiation here. And you are the lawyer, so tell us about this clause and how it is being used.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This amendment to the criminal law incorporates into Canadian law something which, unfortunately, a precedent that was unfortunately set by our American neighbors to the south. And it’s the concept of the deferred prosecution agreement. It’s just a fancy way of saying that somebody gets a slap on the wrist, and they don’t end up with a criminal conviction, and they are not subjected to criminal penalties. That’s all it is. The concept of a deferred prosecution agreement was used over and over again in the aftermath of the financial crisis in the United States to protect the big banks from criminal convictions.

After the company SNC-Lavalin lobbied the Trudeau government relentlessly over a period of months, if not years, to be protected from criminal conviction, Justin Trudeau introduced this concept into the criminal law. And it was widely believed at the time that he did this precisely in order to protect SNC-Lavalin, and perhaps people who are his friends within the corporation. So this law–you know, unfortunately we’ve inherited it now into Canada. And it was, you know, the allegation essentially is–and as I say the, government has not directly denied the allegation, nor has the former Justice Minister, that she was being pressured to use this new SNC-friendly law in order to protect SNC from a criminal conviction in the worst case of corporate corruption in this country’s history.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri, the now former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould today said that she was somehow unable to talk about this situation because she was actually protected by the solicitor-client responsibilities. And so she did not comment on what Justin Trudeau was denying. So tell us why she did that.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, what she was invoking was what is known to lawyers as the solicitor-client privilege. And it effectively, and for very good reasons, protects from disclosure communications between a client and an attorney, a client’s attorney.

SHARMINI PERIES: So in this case the client is the government of Canada, she’s saying.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Correct. That’s right. There are two things that are important to understand. If she came out and she said simply, look, I wasn’t subjected to any pressure, there’s a good argument to be made that that doesn’t amount to disclosing any confidential communications from the client, from the government. So I think there’s a real question here about whether that the denial, or the negation, of the Globe and Mails allegations would amount to a disclosure of communications between the client the attorney, and therefore constitute a violation of the privilege.

But quite apart from that, the privilege, it’s very important to understand, and this is very clear in the law, belongs to the client. In this case, the government. And the client is free to waive the privilege at any time. So the government could say to former Justice Minister Wilson Raybould, we are liberating you to tell the media that this is all nonsense, and that you were not subjected to pressure. Nobody told you or in any way attempted to influence you to intervene for the benefit of SNC-Lavalin. There’s absolutely no justification that I can think of why the government wouldn’t give her that freedom here to speak if, in fact, they’re telling the truth.

And in the background of all of this it’s important to understand, Sharmini, just to go off on a little bit of a tangent, but it’s a really important element of the story here in Canada, is that she is the very first Indigenous justice minister that we have had in this country. And I don’t know that any Indigenous person has ever occupied a position this high and important within the Canadian government. And the fact that she’s being hung out to dry in this way, and she’s being hung out to dry after she made some rather diplomatic criticisms about the Canadian government’s purported concern for Indigenous rights, I think is potentially going to poison the well of relations between the Trudeau government and the Indigenous community much more than it has already been poisoned by, for example, the government’s pursuit of the Trans Mountain tar sands project over the objections of Indigenous communities. The former Justice Minister is being put in a very, very difficult position here as a result of the government’s evasive answers in what appears to be, increasingly so, a concerted attempt at her expense to protect friends of the Liberal government.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri. Let’s leave it there, but I have a feeling this isn’t going to go away, so I’m sure we’ll be discussing it again. Thank you so much for joining us for now.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you very much, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer that focuses on human rights and environmental law. He is the former justice critic of the Green Party of Canada and is a former board member of the Real News Network. You can follow him @dimitrilascaris and find more of his work at