By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) – The head of Canada’s federal bureaucracy said on Monday he was quitting over his role in handling a corporate corruption case that has sparked a political crisis and damaged the ruling Liberals’ hopes of re-election in October.
Michael Wernick, the clerk of the privy council, said in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that he wanted to leave well before the election because he had lost the confidence of opposition leaders.
Trudeau has been on the defensive since Feb. 7 over allegations that top officials leaned on former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to ensure engineering and construction firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc avoided a corruption trial.
Wernick, who was appointed by Trudeau to the job in early 2016, is the latest victim in a scandal that has already cost the prime minister his closest personal aide and two senior cabinet members.
The civil service and Wernick are supposed to be non-partisan, but his strong defence of government officials and his insistence that no one had done anything wrong triggered widespread criticism from opposition legislators that he was siding with the Liberals.
“Recent events have led me to conclude that I cannot serve as clerk of the privy council … during the upcoming election campaign,” Wernick said in his letter.
“It is now apparent that there is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the opposition parties,” he said.
Wilson-Raybould told the House of Commons justice committee last month that Wernick had put intense pressure on her to help SNC-Lavalin avoid prosecution over allegations it bribed Libyan officials.
The scandal is the most serious faced by the 47-year-old Trudeau since he led the Liberals out of the political wilderness and into power in 2015.
Recent opinion polls show the Liberals could be ousted by the resurgent Conservatives in October. The Conservatives, the largest opposition party in parliament, accuse Trudeau of a cover-up of the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer told the House of Commons that Wernick had resigned “in disgrace” and repeated his calls for a full public inquiry.
Earlier this month, Trudeau denied he or his officials had interfered in Canada’s judicial system, and he offered no apology. He admitted lessons could be learned and blamed himself for not having realized Wilson-Raybould was unhappy.
Trudeau praised Wernick for his almost 40 years in the federal bureaucracy but did not answer directly when asked by reporters whether he had asked for his resignation. Wernick will be replaced by Ian Shugart, currently the top bureaucrat at the foreign ministry.
In a surprise move on Monday, Trudeau named Joyce Murray, a 64-year-old Liberal backbencher, as president of the Treasury Board, where she will be in overall charge of government spending.
Murray replaces Jane Philpott, who quit on March 4 in protest over how the government was handling the SNC-Lavalin case. Wilson-Raybould, who was demoted in January, resigned from Trudeau’s Cabinet the next month.
SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based firm that employs some 9,000 people in Canada and tens of thousands of others abroad, is accused of bribing Libyan officials to get contracts between 2001 and 2011.
The firm had strongly lobbied in favour of a deferred prosecution agreement, or out-of-court settlement, instead of going to trial. SNC-Lavalin has said it removed the executives in charge at the time and overhauled its ethics and compliance systems. It vowed to vigorously defend itself.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Paul Simao and Cynthia Osterman)