By David Ljunggren and Julie Gordon
OTTAWA (Reuters) – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday denied interfering in Canada’s judicial system as he sought to defuse a crisis threatening his political future, and offered no apology, asserting only that lessons had been learned.
Trudeau called a news conference to address allegations that improper pressure was put on former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to help construction firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc avoid a criminal trial.
“There was no breakdown of our systems, of our rule of law, of the integrity of our institutions,” Trudeau, the Liberal Party leader, told reporters. “There was never any inappropriate pressure.”
Trudeau, 47, came to power in November 2015 promising “sunny ways,” more accountability and a greater number of women in the Cabinet. Yet two-high powered female ministers have quit over the case and he now finds himself accused of trying to arrange a backroom deal with a major company.
Trudeau and other officials deny doing anything improper by asking Wilson-Raybould to consider offering SNC-Lavalin a deal to avoid a trial on charges of bribing Libyan officials. Wilson-Raybould had the power to scrap the decision to go to trial and impose a fine but decided against it.
Trudeau, who discussed the matter with Wilson-Raybould on Sept. 17, said: “I stressed the importance of protecting Canadian jobs and reiterated that this issue was one of significant national importance.”
The crisis has prompted the resignations of Wilson-Raybould, Treasury Board President Jane Philpott and Trudeau’s closest political aide, Gerald Butts.
“There are many lessons to be learned and many things we would have liked to have done differently,” Trudeau said, adding he should have been aware Wilson-Raybould was unhappy.
A weekly tracking poll released by Nanos Research on Tuesday put the Conservatives at 35 percent public support, with the Liberals at 34 percent. A Jan. 8 Nanos poll put the Liberals at 39 percent and the Conservatives at 33 percent.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer repeated calls for Trudeau to resign and said the prime minister’s comments had been “a completely phoney act of fake sincerity.” He told reporters Trudeau had “acted like someone who has something to hide.”
Some Liberal legislators complained privately that Trudeau’s team had mishandled the matter. One senior party member, who had previously voiced concerns, said Trudeau was right not to apologise.
Under current laws, SNC-Lavalin could be banned from federal procurement contracts for 10 years if found guilty.
Trudeau’s officials, citing the potential for job losses, said they wanted Wilson-Raybould to consider a so-called deferred prosecution agreement, which would mean imposing a large fine on the company instead.
SNC-Lavalin, which employs 9,000 people in Canada, has close connections to the government. Kevin Lynch, the company’s chair, was once head of the federal civil service.
The company is based in the populous, largely French-speaking province of Quebec, where Trudeau’s Liberals lead in the polls but say they need to win more seats to have a chance in the October election.
Wilson-Raybould told the House of Commons justice committee last week that officials, citing the need to protect jobs, kept on pressing her to think again even after she made clear she felt the company needed to face a trial.
“We considered she was still open to hearing different arguments, different approaches on what her decision could be. As we now learn … that was not the case,” Trudeau said.
He said relations between his office and Wilson-Raybould had clearly been fraying for months.
“I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As prime minister … I should have been,” Trudeau said.
Wilson-Raybould, who was unexpectedly demoted to the veterans affairs ministry in January, quit on Feb. 12. She said she was sure her stance on SNC-Lavalin had cost her the justice portfolio, a charge Trudeau and Butts have denied.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Editing by Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)