Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault accused opposition members of the House of Commons justice committee of being on a “witch hunt” in their bid to call key political figures to testify in the SNC-Lavalin affair, while others questioned the “random people” behind the report that sparked it all.
Other government members then blocked attempts to immediately call as witnesses key political staff — including former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s principal secretary, Gerald Butts — and refused to commit to doing so in a closed-door meeting set to take place next week.
That meeting, set for Feb. 19, will discuss additions to the three officials the Liberal members agreed to immediately call in a surprise motion of their own.
“I think today’s comments from particularly the Conservative opposition demonstrate that, at best, committees of the House of Commons are political theatre that occasionally achieve good studies,” said Boissonnault.
“We don’t have the tools, we don’t have the budget, we don’t have the mechanisms to go through the kind of fishing expedition and witch hunt the Conservatives would like to see.”
WATCH: Justice committee debates investigation into SNC affair
Discussion frequently grew heated at an emergency meeting of the House of Commons justice committee meeting over a bombshell Globe and Mail report last week, alleging that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office pressured former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene and help SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal trial on corruption and fraud charges.
That report quoted unnamed sources, something Liberal MP Ron McKinnon appeared to criticize during his comments to the committee, describing them as “random people.”
Last weekend, his caucus colleague Marco Mendicino also questioned the sources of that story in an interview with the West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson.
Conservative and NDP members had put forward a motion calling two of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s closest advisers — principal secretary Gerald Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford — along with two other senior PMO officials, Wilson-Raybould herself, the director of public prosecutions, and others to answer questions about allegations of political interference.
Specifically, the Globe and Mail report alleged officials within the PMO pressured Wilson-Raybould to get public prosecutors to reverse a decision not to offer a deal known as “deferred prosecution” or a “remediation agreement” to SNC-Lavalin.
WATCH BELOW: Trudeau has ‘obfuscated’ and ‘dodged’ SNC-Lavalin allegations, Raitt says
Such a deal would have allowed it to admit wrongdoing, pay a fine and pay back any gains made from its alleged activities in Libya between 2001 and 2011.
But during the meeting, multiple Liberal members surprised the committee by presenting a motion of their own that invites Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, Deputy Minister of Justice Nathalie Drouin and current Attorney General David Lametti.
WATCH MORE: Liberals, opposition spar in committee over SNC-Lavalin affair
Liberal members said they would agree to talks about any other potential witnesses in camera, which is a meeting held in secret with no transcripts or reporters, and which would also include legal advice on concerns about the ongoing SNC-Lavalin court case, as well as what the rules are on limits to discussions among cabinet members, government officials and the attorney general on ongoing cases.
That Liberal motion is significantly different from the Conservative and NDP motion in the scope of witnesses, through Liberal members stressed they are not limiting the witnesses that can be called to only those on the list.
The NDP’s Nathan Cullen moved an amendment to expand that witness list to include Wilson-Raybould, Butts and Matthew Bouchard, one of the senior PMO advisers who was lobbied by SNC-Lavalin on issues related to justice and law enforcement.
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Liberal members voted against that and defeated the amendment, with Liberal MP Iqra Khalid accusing opposition members of “partisanship” and “looking for soundbites” as rationale for why meetings about potential other witnesses should not be held in public.
Such meetings are normally held in camera, but Cullen argued the exceptional circumstances of the allegations warranted a public discussion so Canadians could see which proposed witnesses were refused.
The Liberal members also defeated a motion put forward by Conservative MP Michael Cooper asking Trudeau to waive solicitor-client privilege and let Wilson-Raybould speak about the matter.
WATCH BELOW: Conservatives criticize motion for omitting key witnesses in SNC-Lavalin case
Boissonnault also accused opposition members of concocting “fiction” in their characterizations of the controversy.
“If SNC-Lavalin had ended up in a remediation, okay, you’d have something. But guess what? They’re going to trial,” he asserted.
“Are you really serious? You’re trying to make Canadians make that kind of link? It didn’t work in the way that you’d like the fiction to play out.”
However, while the public prosecutor in October 2018 declined to negotiate a remediation agreement, SNC-Lavalin has appealed that decision and no verdict has yet been issued. Lametti also said in remarks to CTV News over the weekend that offering a deal “remains a possibility.”
WATCH BELOW: Opposition proposes amendment to motion to allow media, added witnesses in SNC-Lavalin case
Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt said before the meeting began that changing or blocking the motion would not be acceptable.
She continued, adding that the opposition will look to other avenues such as judicial inquiry and possible Senate study of the matter, if their motion is blocked.
“They should be very worried,” she said when asked what will happen if Liberal MPs shoot down the motion.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the matter and comments the prime minister made on Tuesday that Wilson-Raybould did not express any concerns to him prior to resigning.
“Now he’s trying to paint himself as the victim in all of this,” Scheer said.
“He’s now publicly impugning her character in a way that prevents her being able to speak for herself.”
Unnamed sources have over the past week described Wilson-Raybould in various media reports as difficult to work with, self-centred and prone to berating other cabinet ministers.
Several Liberal MPs have since come to Wilson-Raybould’s defence, including Treasury Board president Jane Philpott, Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, and former Canadian ambassador to China John McCallum.
WATCH BELOW: What’s next for Jody Wilson-Raybould after her resignation?
Wilson-Raybould resigned from the federal cabinet Tuesday but told the prime minister about her decision on Monday night, not long after he held a press conference in Vancouver saying that her continued presence in the cabinet allayed concerns about potential interference.
Trudeau denied that Wilson-Raybould was pressured to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin, rather than pursue a criminal trial on charges of bribery and fraud related to the company’s efforts to secure government contracts in Libya.
WATCH: Ethics commissioner will probe interference allegations
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh warned ahead of the meeting that blocking the opposition motion would send a dangerous signal to Canadians about the state of their democracy.
Scheer also said his party will explore “all legal avenues” to get to the bottom of the matter.
Federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion has initiated his own investigation into the matter, specifically whether there’s been a violation of the Conflict of Interest Act, but there is no timeline for when that could be completed.
Meanwhile, Wilson-Raybould has retained former a Supreme Court justice to advise her on what she can legally say about the matter given concerns about solicitor-client privilege, since she acted as the government’s lawyer while serving as attorney general.
WATCH: Trudeau says he welcomes investigation by ethics commissioner into SNC-Lavalin case