Canada ethics watchdog says Trudeau broke rules, finding could hurt election hopes


OTTAWA (Reuters) – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and officials in his government improperly tried to influence a corporate legal case, Canada’s top ethics watchdog said on Wednesday in a politically damaging assessment that could hurt his chances of winning October’s general election.

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Canada Day festivities on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Patrick Doyle/File Photo/File Photo

Trudeau’s team attempted to circumvent, undermine and discredit a decision by federal prosecutors that construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc should face trial on corruption charges, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said in a scathing report.

While Dion’s conclusions could be politically damning, his judgment that Trudeau violated ethical standards carries no legal implications beyond a possible small fine.

The scandal battered Trudeau’s image as a youthful progressive at the helm of a government that had vowed to be open and transparent. He is the first Canadian prime minister found to have broken federal ethics rules.

The release of Dion’s report promised to reignite a scandal that initially flared in February.

The affair marked the low point of Trudeau’s almost four-year tenure and prompted the resignation of two high-profile female cabinet ministers, his closest personal aide and the head of the federal bureaucracy.

The case proved politically harmful and Trudeau’s Liberals trailed the official opposition Conservatives for several months in opinion polls ahead of the election that will determine whether or not Trudeau stays in power. Recent surveys, however, showed the center-left Liberals edging in front of their right-leaning rivals.

The scandal involves SNC-Lavalin, a major employer in the politically important Canadian province of Quebec, which wanted to take advantage of a 2018 law allowing it to escape with a fine rather than face trial.

Trudeau, who has said he fretted about potential job losses, admits he tried last year to persuade former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to reconsider the prosecutor’s decision to press ahead with a trial but insisted he did nothing wrong.

Dion disagreed, finding that Trudeau had contravened conflict of interest rules forbidding public office holders from trying to improperly further another person’s private interests.

“Because SNC‑Lavalin overwhelmingly stood to benefit from Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s intervention, I have no doubt that the result of Mr. Trudeau’s influence would have furthered SNC-Lavalin’s interests. The actions that sought to further these interests were improper,” he added.

Wilson-Raybould refused to overrule the prosecutor’s decision, and was demoted in a cabinet shuffle in January. She resigned the next month.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer described Trudeau’s behavior as “unforgivable” and said a police investigation was warranted.

“He has stated so many falsehoods that no one can believe anything he says,” Scheer told a televised news conference in Regina, Saskatchewan.

He did not repeat earlier calls for Trudeau to step down, saying Canadians should vote him out of office on Oct. 21. Trudeau is expected to give his reaction to the ethics commissioner’s report later on Wednesday.

Slideshow (4 Images)

“For sure the timing is going to be very difficult for the current government. The information is … damning,” University of Ottawa law professor Jennifer Quaid told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The report marks the second time Trudeau has fallen afoul of conflict of interest rules. In December 2017, former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson said Trudeau acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.

On that occasion, Trudeau apologized.

Reporting by David Ljunggren and Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson; Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool



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