Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday denied accusations of “inappropriate” meddling in the prosecution of a corporate giant, as he battles his worst crisis since taking office.
Facing calls to resign over the snowballing scandal, Trudeau addressed the allegations head-on in a morning news conference in Ottawa, saying he had learned “lessons” from the crisis, but denying any wrongdoing.
Trudeau’s inner circle is accused of pressuring his former attorney general to shield Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin from a bribery trial.
The case has already triggered the resignation of Trudeau’s right-hand man and two Cabinet ministers, with support for the prime minister and his Liberals falling for the first time behind the opposition Tories, seven months from a general election.
Addressing the media, the 47-year-old acknowledged he raised the pending trial during a meeting in September last year with then-Canadian attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould — whose resignation touched off the crisis.
He said they discussed its possible effects on jobs in his Montreal electoral base.
“But this comment was not partisan in nature,” he said.
During days of testimony before the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, Wilson-Raybould said she experienced “consistent and sustained” pressure from Trudeau’s inner circle to interfere in the case, including “veiled threats.”
“There was no inappropriate pressure,” said Trudeau, who stood by his previous claim that he made clear to Wilson-Raybould any decision was hers alone.
Trudeau did take some responsibility for the breakdown in relations between his office and Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first Aboriginal attorney general who claims she was shuffled out of the Canadian Department of Justice over the case, and who last month quit the government.
“As we look over the past weeks, there are many lessons to be learned and many things we would have liked to have done differently,” Trudeau said.
“I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As prime minister, I should have been,” he said, vowing to “do better next time.”
However, he added that Wilson-Raybould should have been more forthcoming with her concerns.
Rejecting Trudeau’s account, opposition leader Andrew Scheer told a news conference in Toronto: “The erosion of trust has been between Justin Trudeau and Canadians.”
“It’s now beyond dispute that he and his office bullied and threatened Ms Wilson-Raybould to get her to let SNC-Lavalin off the hook [and] when she resisted the attempts he fired her,” Scheer said.
SNC-Lavalin was charged with corruption four years ago for allegedly paying C$47 million (US$34.93 million at the current exchange rate) in bribes from 2001 to 2011 to secure Libyan government contracts and of defrauding the Libyan government of C$130 million.
SNC-Lavalin openly lobbied the Canadian government for an out-of-court settlement under a new law that would mean paying a fine and agreeing to compliance measures.
A conviction, the company said, risked crippling its business and putting thousands out of work, as it would be barred for 10 years from bidding for federal work.
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