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Election 2019

An RCMP Investigation Could Sink Trudeau. Here’s Why It Won’t Happen

Liberal insiders says a criminal investigation before the election could snuff the party’s re-election hopes.

Michael Harris 21 Aug

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

Besides broken promises, there are a lot of things that could hurt Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in this October’s federal election.

There is the bratty sense of entitlement, the dubious judgement and the furtive backroom dealings with a company charged with fraud and bribery.

But it is the RCMP who could provide the nitro to blow the doors off Trudeau’s bid to win a second term as prime minster.

The national police force is facing the momentous decision of whether to launch a formal criminal investigation into the SNC-Lavalin scandal, just as the Quebec engineering giant had its credit rating downgraded to junk status.

If they do investigate — and that fact becomes known — Trudeau will be forced to spend the election campaign trying to convince Canadians he is not a crook.

The prime minister knows that all too well. That’s why he and the Liberal Party are fighting back with all the usual tools to change the political channel:

Daily spending announcements have become obscenely routine; cabinet ministers like Chrystia Freeland have offered protestations of undying loyalty; and strategists are pushing the line that Canadians aren’t interested in the scandal. Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, the two cabinet ministers who put Trudeau in his current predicament by refusing to play ball on the SNC-Lavalin case, are dismissed or attacked by Liberal loyalists.

Fair enough.

Politics can be a dirty and brutal business, especially when all the marbles are on the table in a national election. But Trudeau made a major error in his defence strategy when he stooped to the fine art of sucking and blowing on the report of Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion.

It comes down to this. You can’t say you accept the findings of a report and then add that you disagree with the most critical parts of it. You can’t say “mistakes” were made and then defend them.

When Trudeau did that, he sounded like disgraced Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, who described Justice Lisa Cameron’s verdict that he was guilty of election spending violations as merely her “opinion.” The PM has apparently forgotten the most basic legal tenet of them all — that no one can be the judge in their own case.

While Trudeau continues to defend his actions with SNC-Lavalin, the RCMP faces two burning questions: will they investigate, and just as important, should they? After all, the country is wobbling towards the writ period for the 2019 election, and the whiff of criminal wrongdoing around a sitting prime minister could clearly affect the result.

According to a recent report in the Hill Times newspaper, some Liberal MPs believe that the party is “cooked” if the national police force launches an investigation into Trudeau’s part in the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

Some of the MPs who were anonymously interviewed in the Hill Times piece say they don’t even want to use Trudeau’s name or image in their campaign material. It is not a good sign when the leader becomes the skunk at the garden party.

Some backbenchers believe that there has been a dramatic drop in the PM’s popularity after Dion’s damning report detailing interference by Trudeau and his staff and senior officials in an active criminal prosecution.

The commissioner found that Trudeau broke Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act by repeatedly and improperly pressuring his then-attorney general, Wilson-Raybould, to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin. That way, the company could avoid criminal prosecution on fraud and bribery charges it has been facing since 2015.

Wilson-Raybould refused to violate the independence of her Director of Public Prosecutions, who had already decided not to offer the company a remediation agreement. She was subsequently shuffled out of the justice portfolio and later resigned from cabinet. For good measure, Trudeau also kicked her out of caucus, along with Philpott.

People have been scenting the stench from this story for several months. Last February, five former federal attorneys general, including Peter MacKay and Douglas Grinslade Lewis, sent an open letter to the RCMP asking them to investigate the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said that there is enough evidence in Dion’s report to trigger an RCMP criminal investigation. He said in a news conference Monday that Canadians know that Trudeau broke the law; they just don’t know if he committed a crime.

Something has to be noted. The Conservatives are in no position to play holier-than-thou on the SNC-Lavalin file. The company also successfully lobbied the government of Stephen Harper, which in July 2015 brought in the so-called “Integrity Regime” to replace the Integrity Framework of 2012.

Under the changes, a supplier was ostensibly barred from doing business with the government of Canada for 10 years if it committed integrity related offences domestically or abroad. Those offences included bribery, fraud, bid-rigging, tax evasion, insider trading or money laundering.

But there was a catch. The ban could be reduced to just five years if the company co-operated with authorities and took remedial action to mitigate their offences.

And Harper’s new rules also created so-called “Administrative Agreements” that would allow convicted companies to continue to do business with the Government of Canada in lieu of a suspension.

One of the grounds for entering into such an agreement with a convicted company was the “public interest.” In other words, the Conservative government was well on their way to deferred prosecution agreements.

Opposition parties and politicians are now asking for either a police investigation or, in the case of the Green Party, a public inquiry to clear the air.

That will take an industrial-strength air-freshener, as Dion’s report makes clear.

At the time of Trudeau’s first meeting with SNC’s then-CEO, Neil Bruce, in early 2016, a meeting that was not recorded in the lobbying registry, the company had already been criminally charged.

Why does that matter?

Trudeau was effectively discussing a live criminal prosecution with the accused — not exactly standard operating practice under the rule of law. His government would later draft and pass exactly the kind of deferred prosecution law the company lobbied for in over 80 meetings with government officials.

One of Dion’s most breathtaking findings highlighted Trudeau’s persistence in meddling in the SNC-Lavalin file. Dion wrote that Trudeau was twice advised in briefings from the Privy Council Office — on Nov. 20 and then again on Nov. 26, 2018 — not to meet with SNC-Lavalin’s CEO, and not to discuss the SNC case with the company’s legal counsel.

Despite that advice, the prime minister did not instruct his senior staff to stand down in their talks with the accused company.

In fact, as the commissioner notes in his report, discussions between the Trudeau PMO and SNC-Lavalin actually intensified after those briefings, with the company’s legal counsel becoming the primary points of contact in November and December 2018.

As Dion notes in his report, that was inarguably improper.

“The principles of prosecutorial independence and sub judice make it clearly improper for one branch of the Government of Canada to be communicating with applicants to a judicial review challenging a decision made by another Branch of the Government of Canada, without the knowledge or involvement of the Attorney General or their delegated representative.”

But if the prime minister is on shaky ground as a result of the ethics commissioner’s findings of fact, the RCMP is in a delicate position as well — starting with the fact that their boss is Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

There is considerable irony in that fact. The last time the RCMP got embroiled in federal politics, Goodale himself was at the eye of the storm as Canada’s finance minister.

Then RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli named Goodale in announcing a criminal investigation into an alleged leak from the federal budget. The Liberals had decided not to tax income trusts. After that information apparently leaked from the Finance Department, some investors profited on the stock market. Then Opposition leader Harper called for Goodale’s resignation.

Zaccardelli announced the criminal investigation smack in the middle of the 2006 federal election campaign that brought Harper to power. Despite the lingering stench of the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal, they had been leading in the polls. Zaccardelli’s startling announcement killed their mojo.

A subsequent investigation into the budget leak ended with an official in the Finance Department being charged. Goodale was cleared of any wrongdoing. The RCMP complaints commissioner concluded that there was no evidence to prove that Zaccardelli meddled in the election for political reasons. Zaccardelli refused to answer questions for the probe.

Bottom line?

Despite naming a new leader — Paul Martin — the Liberals lost the 2006 election. Some people believe the RCMP investigation was the straw that broke the party’s back.

Besides the question of whether the RCMP should launch an investigation that impacts, or even decides, a federal election, another big question should give the RCMP pause. Do Canadians trust the Mounties the way they once did?

Harper eroded a lot of that trust by using the RCMP in what looked like vindictive and political investigations.

Case in point. After a note from the Prime Minister’s Office, the RCMP put former Conservative MPs Helena Guergis and her husband Rahim Jaffer under a major police investigation in 2010 that sent investigators to other countries. The investigation looked into a wide range of allegations.

The RCMP found no substance to any of the accusations.

Jaffer was by then out of politics, but Harper had kicked Guergis out of the Conservative caucus when the investigation was launched, and refused to reinstate her despite her exoneration. That created a sense that the PMO had used the RCMP as a stick to beat perceived enemies. And that hurt the RCMP’s reputation.

The case of Senator Mike Duffy did nothing to allay fears that the RCMP allowed itself at times to be a political police force.

In a spectacular example of either incompetence or robotic obedience, the Mounties charged Duffy with 31 offences relating to alleged fraud, breach of trust and bribery in his role as a Canadian senator.

They announced these charges in a circus-like press conference. After 62 days of hearings, Judge Charles Vaillancourt said he found the Crown’s case “mind-boggling and shocking” in its weakness.

Vaillancourt dismissed 27 of the charges against Duffy, and found him not guilty of the other four. The RCMP emerged from that travesty of justice with faces as red as their ceremonial uniforms. How could the country’s national police force, backed up by all the legal firepower of the federal justice department, bat zero for 31 in a case that ruined a man’s reputation? Duffy’s lawsuit against the RCMP continues.

And for those senior Mounties with an institutional memory, there is another case from the past that may give the RCMP pause before investigating — or charging — a sitting prime minister.

Back in 1984, the RCMP investigated then New Brunswick premier Richard Hatfield for possession of marijuana. The drug was found in a small plastic bag in his luggage during a visit to New Brunswick by Queen Elizabeth ll.

As reported by Macleans back in 1985, a partial print was found on the bag of marijuana found in an unlocked outer compartment of his suitcase. It revealed eight points of similarity with the premier’s fingerprints; it takes 10 for a positive identification.

Presiding Judge Andrew Harrigan acquitted Hatfield on the grounds that there was no proof that the premier ever had personal possession of the drug.

The judge even mused that the marijuana might have been planted there by a mischievous reporter looking for a sensational scoop. The story made the New York Times.

For all the above reasons, my guess is that the RCMP will not open a criminal investigation into its political masters. For one thing, it could never be completed before the election, given the number of cabinet ministers, senior government officials and corporate players who would have to be interviewed.

It would also be impossible to keep such an investigation secret, and Trudeau would be seriously hurt by leaks from any probe. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki doesn’t want to end up like Giuliano Zaccardelli, facing accusations of interference in the electoral process.

The likely outcome is that the RCMP will make a terse statement sometime soon announcing that the Trudeau government’s actions in the SNC-Lavalin case do not rise to the level of a crime. But even that public relations exit strategy comes at a price.

There is enough evidence available to the public, thanks to Dion’s report, that giving Trudeau a pass on a criminal investigation will leave Canadians facing disturbing questions.

If the decision is taken not to investigate, will it be based on what Trudeau actually did, or the office he holds?

And are some people more equal before the law than others?

The Tyee's federal election coverage is made possible by readers who pitched in to our election reporting fund. Read more about how The Tyee developed our reader-powered election reporting plan and see all of our stories here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Election 2019, Politics

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