This past year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been embroiled in allegations that he improperly intervened in one of Canada’s biggest-ever foreign bribery prosecutions. That prosecution, of the Canadian construction firm SNC-Lavalin, began back in 2015, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) announced they would be bringing charges against the firm for paying approximately CA$48 million in bribes to Libyan government officials to win contracts, and for related misconduct including the defrauding of Libyan companies. This past February, the Globe and Mail reported that Prime Minister Trudeau and his closest advisors had inappropriately attempted to influence the SNC-Lavalin prosecution, and a subsequent inquiry by the Ethics Commissioner found that Trudeau had indeed acted unethically in attempting to influence key prosecutorial decisions that are supposed to be made by the Attorney General. The scandal had political consequences: although Prime Minister Trudeau and his Liberal Party managed to hang on to a minority government in October’s elections, the Liberal Party lost 27 seats and the popular vote.
The specific prosecutorial decision that Prime Minister Trudeau attempted to influence concerned whether the government should negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with SNC-Lavalin. A DPA is a settlement in which the defendant agrees to penalties or other remedial measures, and in return the government agrees to suspend the prosecution, and eventually drop the charges if after an agreed period of time the defendant has complied with the terms of the agreement. A DPA is similar to a plea bargain, but it does not require the defendant to plead guilty, and so avoids imposing on the defendant the stigma and collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. The prosecutor who brought the charges denied SNC-Lavalin’s request for a DPA in late 2018, and the acting Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, declined to overrule that decision. The Attorney General’s decision is supposed to be final on such matters. Nonetheless, Ms. Wilson-Raybould claims she fielded ten phone calls from the Prime Minister’s office, and was invited in for ten in-person meetings with the Prime Minister and his advisors, regarding this decision—and that the Prime Minister was pushing her to pursue a DPA with SNC-Lavalin. Ms. Wilson-Raybould refused to reconsider her stance on the matter, and shortly afterwards she was removed from her position as Attorney General and named instead Head of Veteran Affairs. In the end, the interference was exposed, the pressure failed, and, unless there’s some other unexpected turn of events, SNC-Lavalin will be going to trial.
This affair raises two questions: First, was Prime Minister Trudeau correct that the prosecutors should negotiate a DPA in this case? Second, if the answer to the first question is yes, was it appropriate for the Prime Minister to press his Attorney General to pursue that approach? My answer is yes to the first question, but no to the second. On the one hand, Prime Minister Trudeau was correct, and Acting Attorney General Wilson-Raybould was incorrect, about the appropriateness of a DPA in this case. However, the principle of prosecutorial independence from political influence—especially in corruption cases—is far more important, and the Prime Minister should never have compromised this core value even if he was right on the merits of this individual decision. Continue reading