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Canada's Trudeau rebuked on ethics ahead of election

Michel COMTE
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been rebuked for ethics violations in the case of SNC-Lavalin, an engineering firm accused of paying bribes to win business in Libya

Canada's ethics watchdog slammed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday, concluding in the lead-up October elections that he broke rules by arm-twisting his attorney general to settle a criminal case against engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.

The scandal, revealed earlier this year, tarnished the prime minister's golden boy image, cost two ministers and two senior officials their jobs and plunged his Liberals into a dead heat with the opposition Conservatives in the polls.

Independent parliamentary ethics commissioner Mario Dion said Trudeau and his officials had wrongly sought to "exert influence over the attorney general in her decision whether to intervene in a matter relating to a criminal prosecution."

It marks the second time that Trudeau has been found in breach of Canada's ethics laws, after being rapped in 2017 for accepting a family vacation on the private island in the Bahamas of the Aga Khan, a business magnate and spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims.

Trudeau must pay a small fine of up to Can$500 (US$375) for contravening Canada's conflict of interest act, but with only two months before national elections the political costs could be much steeper.

Trudeau had steadfastly denied accusations that his inner circle sought to shield SNC-Lavalin from a corruption trial. "There was no inappropriate pressure," he said in March.

The Montreal-based firm was charged in 2015 with allegedly paying Can$47 million (US$35 million) in bribes between 2001 and 2011 to secure contracts in Libya during the rule of former strongman Moamer Kadhafi, and of defrauding the Libyan government of Can$130 million.

The charges relate to the world's largest irrigation scheme -- the Great Man Made River Project -- to provide fresh water to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte.

Attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould refused to ask prosecutors to settle the case, and the trial is set to proceed.

But after resigning, Canada's first indigenous attorney general testified to the House of Commons justice committee that she had experienced "consistent and sustained" political pressure to interfere in the case, including "veiled threats."

Dion concluded: "The authority of the prime minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the director of public prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson-Raybould as the Crown's chief law officer."

He said Trudeau "directed his staff to find a solution that would safeguard SNC-Lavalin's business interests in Canada."

He also found that "partisan political interests were improperly put to the attorney general for consideration in the matter."

Notably, a conviction at trial would result in SNC-Lavalin being sanctioned, depriving it of lucrative government contracts resulting in up to 9,000 jobs lost, according to the company, which could harm the Liberals' re-election bid.

The Montreal-based firm openly lobbied the government for an out-of-court settlement that would result in a fine and agreeing to compliance measures.

Wilson-Raybould's replacement as attorney general, David Lametti, has so far only said he is considering the issue.

- Trudeau reconsidered -

In April, Trudeau kicked Wilson-Raybould and budget minister Jane Philpott out of the Liberal Party. Philpott had resigned her cabinet post in solidarity with Wilson-Raybould and criticized Trudeau's handling of the case.

The resignations prompted Canadians to re-examine Trudeau's bona fides, especially his commitment to women and indigenous people.

Both are now running as independents in the upcoming election.

Canada's top bureaucrat, Privy Council Michael Wernick, and Trudeau's longtime friend and top aide Gerry Butts followed them out the door after denying accusations of bullying.

Butts in July joined Trudeau's re-election team.