Dimitri Lascaris says opposition parties sent a letter asking the government to preserve all incriminating evidence of the SNC-Lavalin case, since there is concern it could be destroyed
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada, and his alleged interference in the SNC-Lavalin case, has led to the resignation of former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould from his cabinet.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Last night I accepted Jody Wilson-Raybold’s resignation from Cabinet. Frankly. I am both surprised and disappointed by her decision to step down. And let me tell you why. This resignation is not consistent with conversations I had with Jody a few weeks ago when I asked her to serve as Canada’s Minister for Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence, nor is it consistent with the conversations we’ve had lately.
In regards to the matter of SNC-Lavalin, let me be direct. The government of Canada did its job, and to the clear public standards expected of it. If anyone felt differently, they had an obligation to raise that with me. No one, including Jody, did that.
SHARMINI PERIES: On to talk about all of this with me is Dimitri Lascaris. Dimitri is a lawyer and journalist. Dimitri was a leading class action lawyer in Canada, and before leaving his practice, Dimitri pursued a $1 billion securities fraud class actions case against SNC-Lavalin, which is the corporation at the center of this controversy today. Dimitri, good to have you back.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thanks for having me on again, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in that clip said that he was surprised and disappointed by Wilson-Raybould’s resignation, and he also said that if the government of Canada was doing anything wrong it was the responsibility of the Minister to inform him, in particular. Your comments on all of that?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we don’t know whether, in fact, she made any effort to inform him or others within the government that she was being subjected–if, in fact, this was the case–to a level of pressure that made her uncomfortable to intervene. She has not responded to whether or not she spoke to the Prime Minister about this. She has not informed the public because she feels, rightly or wrongly, that she is bound by lawyer-client privilege to say nothing unless and until the government waives the privilege–which it has not done, interestingly.
But let’s suppose that Prime Minister Trudeau is telling the truth and that she didn’t raise it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that she wasn’t subjected to pressure that possibly crossed the line into illegality to intervene, because, you know, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, the two parties that have dominated federal politics in this country from the end of the Second World War, are very, very top-down organizations in which the leaders exercise enormous power. And it’s not an easy thing to go to the Prime Minister, in a situation where the Prime Minister wields as much power over the members of the caucus as this one does, and say to him, point blank, people in your office, senior political advisers that you’ve handpicked to advise you on political matters, are pressuring me, and I think that it’s inappropriate what they’re doing, and possibly illegal. I mean, it’s not an easy matter. So, you know, even if he’s telling the truth, even if she came out and said yes, I didn’t raise it with him, it doesn’t necessarily mean the pressure didn’t happen.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, in terms of the Justice Minister’s responsibility here, Dimitri, I mean, the Prime Minister’s got a point. If there is such behavior it is her responsibility to bring it forward, using whatever means she has. Why do you think that didn’t take place, besides the obvious political consequences of, say, a demotion, which is in fact what happened.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Again, I don’t know that it didn’t take place. This is only his version of the story. We don’t know her version of the story, and perhaps she did try to take it up with people under the Prime Minister, not directly with the Prime Minister himself. That’s another possible angle to all of this. But I will readily acknowledge that if she did not raise it with anybody within the government who had jurisdiction to deal with this type of pressure, then that was wrong. She made a mistake, a very serious mistake, and it would raise a question about whether, in fact, she was ever made to feel uncomfortable by the level of pressure to which she was being subjected.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri, now, various people are calling for investigations. Some are calling on the Ethics Commissioner to look into this, and there are some other measures underway. Tell us what the next steps are here.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, there are actually several things going on. First of all, the leader of the opposition, the main opposition party, Andrew Scheer, the Conservative leader, has sent a letter to the government, the Trudeau government, demanding that it preserve all evidence in this matter. That’s number one. And you know, obviously there’s a concern that any incriminating evidence might be disposed of before the authorities can do a thorough review of this matter.
The second thing that’s going on is there’s an immense pressure coming from all the opposition parties–not just the Conservatives, but also the NDP, and Jagmeet Singh, its leader–for the committee, the Justice Committee in Parliament, which is separate from the Ethics Commissioner, to call before it 11 senior members of the government, including the new justice minister David Lametti, to give testimony under oath about what exactly happened here. The head of that Committee, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, has thus far indicated he’s open to doing that, to having these people summoned to the committee and to testify under oath. But a decision has not yet been made as of the last time I checked this morning as to whether the committee will require that.
Then there’s the thing you mentioned, the Ethics Commissioner, that the NDP sent a letter, or members of the NDP sent a letter to the Ethics Commissioner in Canada, demanding an investigation. His response was there is enough meat on the bones for an investigation to be warranted. It’s important to understand that the focus of the Ethics Commissioner, however, is conflicts of interest. So I imagine that what he will be doing is looking at whether any attempts to defend SNC-Lavalin gave rise to a conflict of interest on the part of those who were putting the pressure on the Justice Minister that was done to intervene. So if he comes back and he says, you know, I haven’t found there has been a conflict of interest, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t inappropriate pressure applied on the Justice minister. It just means that it was not done for reasons of personal gain.
So that–you need to understand the scope of the Ethics Commissioner’s investigation. And I think ultimately the choice of lawyer is also interesting here, the lawyer that Ms. Wilson-Raybould has retained to advise her, former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Cromwell. He served on the court up until 2016, when he retired. He was appointed to the court by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He’s a very smart judge of a period before him, and I’m sure she’s going to be getting the highest caliber legal advice from former Justice Cromwell on this matter.
SHARMINI PERIES: Dimitri, SNC-Lavalin is a notoriously fraudulent company, not only in Canada, but the world over. This particular case, I think, you’ve talked about that is in question involves Libya. But this company is involved in much more in terms of its fraudulent activity, which you were involved in pursuing, as well. Tell us more about this company and its its controversies.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, it’s based in Montreal, where Justin Trudeau is from, a traditionally liberal stronghold. It’s also where I live. SNC has operations in over 160 countries. It employs approximately 50,000 people around the world. It had reported revenues most recently over $9 billion in 2017. It has long operated in countries ruled by deeply oppressive regimes. For example, it does extensive business in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates. It’s also very closely tied to the tar sands industry in Canada, where it has substantial businesses.
Now, the focus in the criminal case is SNC’s activities in Libya from 2001 to 2011, when Gadhafi was in power. And prosecutors have charged the company with fraud and corruption, alleging that it paid 48 million in bribes to Libyan government officials to procure lucrative contracts. But it’s important to understand that SNC’s corrupt practices extended well beyond Libya. In 2010, for example, it was part of a consortium that won a $1.3 billion hospital project in Montreal. And that contract eventually became the subject of a criminal investigation, and went on to be called the biggest fraud and corruption investigation in Canadian history by a Quebec police detective.
In September, 2012 the RCMP raided SNC’s offices in Toronto in connection with another corruption probe into a major bridge project in Bangladesh. In April of 2013 the World Bank banned SNC and its 100 subsidiaries from bidding on projects funded by the Bank for 10 years, citing the company’s misconduct not only in Bangladesh, but also in Cambodia. And the thing that’s probably gotten the least amount of press is this: Allegations have emerged relating to campaign finance violations by SNC-Lavalin. Three months ago, a former SNC-Lavalin vice president, Normand Morin, pled guilty to charges of violating Canada’s election financing laws. He orchestrated a scheme between 2004 and 2011 that used SNC-Lavalin employees to get around Canadian federal legal restrictions on companies directly contributing to federal political parties.
The details of this are very important. Morin would get employees to donate to political parties, riding associations, or Liberal leadership candidates, and the company would then reimburse those employees for the fictitious individual contributions. In total, about $118,000 flowed from SNC-Lavalin to federal party funds. Almost all of it went to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, and $13,000 of it went to contestants in a 2016 Liberal Party leadership race.
So when you add all of this up, Sharmini, what you’re talking about here is basically the Canada corporate poster child for corruption. And if you are going to do what is alleged here–namely, give it a free pass and to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement so that no criminal conviction emerges from this criminal proceeding–then you’re basically sending a message to corporate Canada that large corporations can engage in corruption with complete and utter impunity. What should happen in this case, what should happen, is that this company should be made an example of. And every time an executive hears the words SNC-Lavalin in this country, that executive should tremble at the thought of what Canadian prosecutors will do to his or her company if the company engages in corruption.
So this is really something that ought to be of profoundest concern to Canadians, that this particular company, of all others, is allegedly being protected by the Liberal government from any criminal conviction whatsoever.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. How is the company responding to the unraveling situation at the moment?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, interestingly, they [inaudible] a legal proceeding a while ago, a motion trying to force the hand of the prosecution to enter into discussions about a deferred prosecution agreement. I think that’s quite extraordinary because it’s well established that Canadian law the prosecutors have very considerable discretion in these matters, and they’re taking a run at the prosecutor’s discretion and saying you have an obligation to try to negotiate such an agreement with us. I–frankly, I think that as a legal proposition that’s preposterous. But as you can imagine, you know, in terms of what they’re saying publicly and outside of the courtroom, they’re rather constrained at the moment, because this is a matter of tremendous importance and controversy. And not–you know, not only for the reasons I’ve cited, but also because the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous community has become very strained–and Liberal government has become very strained. And this was the first Indigenous justice minister in Canadian history.
And you know, her father, it’s remarkable that things he’s been saying. He’s been coming out very publicly and saying that the way his daughter has been treated is an insult, that it’s shameful. And he was quoted in the press yesterday as saying this is yet another kick in the face to the Aboriginal peoples of this country.
BILL WILSON: This Trudeau’s government, just like the last Trudeau’s government, hasn’t done anything but dig deeper holes for the poverty and deprivation of Aboriginal people across the country. They dance around the table and pretend they can give some money to Indian organizations here, there, and everywhere that don’t change things in the communities. The reality is that 68 percent of all the reserves in this country still don’t have potable water. Can’t drink their water. Some of them don’t have electricity. Our health standards have gone down.
This make believe, cosmetic baloney that Trudeau’s engaged in has proven itself now to be a farce.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So you know, this is really an explosive scandal which I think is causing the government to proceed very, very carefully. And the key thing to bear in mind right now is that it has yet to respond directly to the core allegation of the Globe and Mail, which was the Justice Minister, the former justice minister, was subjected to pressure. The government has never said, as far as I know, that she was not pressured by anybody in the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in this case. And unless and until that is established, this is going to pose a very serious threat to the Liberal government.
SHARMINI PERIES: Dimitri, how serious do you think this case is? Very loosely in conversation yesterday you said that this might bring down the Trudeau government. Is that in fact what might be in play here?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: You know, it all depends on what evidence emerges, and whether the evidence emerges. It is an indictable offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison to obstruct justice. And the language of the relevant provision of the Criminal Code, as I’ve indicated previously speaking to you about this, Sharmini, is Section 139. It’s very broad. You know, it says if you influence the course of justice in any manner. That’s the broadest possible language. So the question is going to–it’s going to come down to the details of what actually transpired here.
So for example, if there was an explicit or implicit threat made to the Justice Minister, for example that she would be demoted, which in fact is what happened a month ago, that very–I think–very likely would constitute obstruction of justice. On the other hand, you could obstruct justice by offering an inducement; not threatening negative consequences, but by saying something along the lines of you will be rewarded in such and such a manner. You don’t have to do it explicitly; you could do it implicitly, offer an inducement. And that could be a violation of Section 139 of the Criminal Code.
So you know, what we are talking about here is the potential for people at the highest level of the Prime Minister’s Office, and possibly even the Prime Minister himself–I don’t know where this happened, but it’s possible–were engaged in activity that constitutes an indictable offence under the Criminal Code. It’s hard to imagine a more serious potential set of circumstances for this government.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri. We’ll leave it there for now, but I’m sure we’ll be back to this conversation. It’s interesting to note that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is proceeding in terms of his activities as business as usual. You know, talking about investments, and corporate trade agreements that are being made. In fact, some of the clip that we played earlier today was prefaced by some announcements in terms of the federal government’s investments, rather than getting to the heart and point of the controversy at hand. Anyway, Dimitri, I thank you so much for joining us today, and looking forward to having you back.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Always a pleasure, Sharmini. Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.