Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, speaks during a Liberal Party fundraiser event in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Photographer: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg) 

Trudeau Boots Former AG From Caucus After Secret Recording

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has expelled his former attorney general from the Liberal caucus -- a risky bid to cauterize a scandal that has hammered the party’s popularity for the past two months.

During a special meeting of lawmakers Tuesday night, Trudeau announced he had ejected both Jody Wilson-Raybould and her ally Jane Philpott, another former minister, from the Liberal caucus. Wilson-Raybould said in a tweet Trudeau had also barred her from seeking re-election this fall under the Liberal banner.

Trudeau Boots Former AG From Caucus After Secret Recording

The former attorney general, who had written lawmakers earlier Tuesday urging them to support her, has alleged she was pressured by Trudeau and others to end a legal case against a Montreal-based construction firm, SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. -- a saga that has dragged on since early February.

Wilson-Raybould’s colleagues had been tight-lipped at first, but fractures have emerged with a steady drip of new statements coming from her and Philpott. It culminated Friday when Wilson-Raybould released an audio recording she’d secretly made of a call she had with the country’s top bureaucrat, Michael Wernick, who has since stepped down. The tone among Liberals changed swiftly.

“Civil wars within parties are incredibly damaging because they signal to Canadians that we care more about ourselves than we do about them,” Trudeau told reporters Tuesday in Ottawa. “That’s why I made the difficult decision to remove Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Philpott from the Liberal caucus.”

The controversy hinges on whether the government would direct prosecutors to issue a deferred prosecution agreement to end a corruption case against SNC and instead negotiate a fine. Doing so would allow the company to avoid a ban on receiving federal contracts. Wilson-Raybould has cast herself as a whistle-blower who defended the independence of the justice system, while Liberal lawmakers have increasingly viewed her statements as political friendly fire.

Testimony and documentation made public so far indicate Wilson-Raybould didn’t want to intervene, but was urged to get a second legal opinion. She alleges that pressure amounts to interference in the justice system, though she says no laws were broken. Trudeau maintains he was trying to protect jobs at the company.

Angry, Hurt

Wilson-Raybould wrote lawmakers Tuesday, pleading her case. “I know many of you are angry, hurt and frustrated. And frankly so am I,” she said in a letter published by several media outlets. “Ultimately, the choice that is before you is about what kind of party you want to be a part of, what values it will uphold, the vision that animates it and indeed the type of people it will attract and make it up.”

In a statement, Philpott called her expulsion profoundly disheartening. "I did not initiate the crisis now facing the party or the Prime Minister. Nor did Jody Wilson-Raybould," she wrote.

It’s been the most damaging scandal for Trudeau since he took office in 2015, costing the Canadian leader two ministers, a top bureaucrat and Gerald Butts, one of the prime minister’s former top aides. Six months ago, Trudeau was leading the opposition Conservatives by five percentage points; the Conservatives now lead Trudeau’s Liberals by four, according to a polling aggregator run by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

The latest trove of information came Tuesday from Butts, who submitted text messages between himself and Wilson-Raybould to a parliamentary committee that until recently had been examining the case. The text messages were about a cabinet-shuffle in January, when Wilson-Raybould was removed from the role of attorney general, a move she said was made because she refused to play ball on helping SNC; Butts has said that wasn’t the reason.

“What is being proposed is a mistake,” Wilson-Raybould texted Butts on Jan 12. She added the next day: “I know why this is happening.”

Trudeau Boots Former AG From Caucus After Secret Recording

The scandal has consumed the government, overshadowing the release last month of its annual budget, ahead of a federal election this fall. Some lawmakers had publicly advocated to keep Wilson-Raybould and Philpott in caucus, but a growing number had called for the former’s removal in particular.

“When you have somebody recording a phone conversation with another person that doesn’t know, that says a lot,” Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said on Monday. Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough added: “There are some really tough conversations going on about trust, about the surreptitious kind of taping, about confidence in the leader, and can you be part of a team?”

The recorded call happened in December. In it, Wernick repeatedly raises the issue of a deferred prosecution agreement but also says Trudeau doesn’t want to break the law. Wilson-Raybould, who said this was the only call she has recorded without telling the other participant, alleged it was interference. It was nonetheless a lightning rod for many lawmakers.

“Then to play these kinds of games, and almost entrapment to the clerk of the privy council? I’ve got no respect for someone like that,” longtime Liberal lawmaker Wayne Easter told the CBC on Monday. He said he feels “used” by Wilson-Raybould.

“I trusted this woman,” he said. “I felt she had been reading from a script at times to try and draw out, to make the clerk -- and the prime minister, and cabinet colleagues and us that sit in caucus with her -- look bad. Of course I’m angry.”

Trudeau reserved his harshest criticism for the former attorney general. “If a politician secretly records a conversation with anyone, it’s wrong,” he said. “When that politician is a cabinet minister secretly recording a public servant, when that cabinet minister is the attorney general of Canada secretly recording the clerk of the privy council, it’s unconscionable.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.