Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has lost his top aide as the controversy over the government’s role in the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc legal case deepens.
In a bombshell departure ahead of an election this year, Gerald Butts on Monday resigned as Trudeau’s principal secretary.
The move follows allegations the prime minister’s office last year pressured former Canadian attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to end a legal case facing the Montreal-based firm. Butts denies he did so.
His decision to step away underscores the weight of the controversy facing Trudeau’s government, which cast itself as progressive and a champion of women, only to face allegations it tried to arm twist one of its most prominent female Cabinet ministers to help SNC-Lavalin.
Wilson-Raybould quit the Cabinet last week.
“Any accusation that I or the staff put pressure on the attorney general is simply not true,” Butts, 47, wrote in his resignation letter, which was tweeted by Trudeau. “My reputation is my responsibility and that is for me to defend. It is in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away.”
Butts is a longtime staffer, college friend and one-time groomsman to Trudeau — and pre-eminent among a small inner circle that the Canadian leader keeps.
Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford have been the two most powerful aides in Trudeau’s government since it took power in 2015. Butts also had an unusually public profile among the prime minister’s senior staff, which made him a lightning rod for critics of the administration.
Trudeau’s Liberal Party is neck-and-neck with the opposition Conservatives heading into the election in October.
The Globe and Mail newspaper reported this month that the prime minister’s office pressured Wilson-Raybould into helping SNC-Lavalin. The case hinges on years-old corruption charges, which the company has been pressing to settle.
The government gave itself the power to do so last year by changing the law to allow for deferred prosecution agreements, whereby the attorney general can order the nation’s independent prosecution service to strike a deal to end a criminal case.
Trudeau acknowledged last week that his government discussed the issue in part to avoid job losses at SNC-Lavalin, which employs about 9,000 people in Canada.
Trudeau said he told Wilson-Raybould in September last year that the final decision was hers as attorney general.
What happened between then and a January Cabinet reshuffle that saw Wilson-Raybould demoted to veterans affairs is unclear.
Wilson-Raybould has said virtually nothing since she quit the Cabinet and has hired a former Canadian Supreme Court judge to advise her on what she can say publicly. She is bound by Cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege.
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