Liberal-dominated justice committee ends SNC-Lavalin probe amid opposition howls

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is to deliver his budget speech at 4 p.m. in the House of Commons

The Liberal-dominated justice committee has pulled the plug on its probe of the SNC-Lavalin affair, prompting fresh howls of outrage from the Conservatives and NDP.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of “thumbing his nose” at Canadians, and said the official Opposition would use “every tool available to us” to hold the government accountable in Parliament.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is to deliver his budget speech at 4 p.m. in the House of Commons, but Scheer repeatedly sidestepped questions about what, if anything, the Opposition could or would do to delay the presentation.

However, the Conservatives have forced a vote on a motion to allow MPs studying fisheries to travel, which could delay Morneau’s speech at least 35 minutes.

Scheer called the government’s budget ”a political prop” in its “unprecedented cover-up” of the affair that has rocked the Liberal cabinet and prompted Trudeau’s top adviser and the country’s most senior public servant to resign.

Conservative and New Democrat MPs unsuccessfully pressed the House of Commons justice committee Tuesday to recall former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould so she could shed more light on the simmering controversy.

Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin finds itself at the centre of a national political storm over allegations prime ministerial aides crossed a line in leaning on Wilson-Raybould to help the company avoid criminal prosecution on corruption charges.

Conservative and New Democrat MPs say Canadians need to hear more about the affair.

“What happened today is absolutely outrageous,” said Conservative committee member Michael Cooper.

READ MORE: Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick retires in wake of SNC-Lavalin case

READ MORE: Budget to tout Liberal economic record, provide distraction from SNC furor

“If there was ever evidence needed that Liberal MPs on the justice committee are agents of the prime minister, doing the work of the prime minister to cover-up the prime minister’s misdeeds, then one need only look at what happened at this meeting today where the Liberals have shut down the process.”

Liberals on the justice committee wrote to the chairman, fellow Liberal Anthony Housefather, this week to say the committee had done its job and should move on to other business.

“As committee members, we have achieved our objectives with respect to these meetings,” says the letter. ”Following the testimony of all witnesses, we believe that all rules and laws were followed. Canadians now have the necessary information to arrive at a conclusion.”

Liberal committee member Randy Boissonault reiterated the contents of the letter following the meeting, saying Tuesday’s session was the 10th in five weeks, amounting to 13 hours of testimony given by 10 witnesses.

“We have heard from many of the key players in this matter,” he said.

The Liberal members tabled a motion Tuesday calling for the committee to begin a study of the rise of hate crimes in Canada.

They say the federal ethics commissioner, who has launched a probe of the SNC-Lavalin matter, is best suited to investigate the political controversy.

They also note former justice minister Anne McLellan has been appointed to explore the relationship between the government and the minister of justice, who plays a second role as attorney general. While the justice minister is a political player, the attorney general is supposed to make independent, impartial decisions about prosecutions.

But the opposition would have none of it.

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt said the committee should hold town-hall meetings on SNC-Lavalin and hear from Canadians about the affair.

Wilson-Raybould has a right to reply to other witnesses including Gerald Butts, the former top adviser to Trudeau, Raitt said in objecting to the Liberal effort to move on.

“They’re controlling what is being said, they’re controlling who is being heard from, they’re controlling whether or not we study a topic. This is really egregious and absolutely shameful.”

New Democrat MP Murray Rankin called it ”yet another effort to change the channel” by the government.

SNC-Lavalin faces legal trouble over allegations it paid millions of dollars in bribes to obtain government business in Libya. The company unsuccessfully pressed the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a “remediation agreement,” a legal means of holding an organization to account for wrongdoing without a formal finding of guilt.

The director told SNC-Lavalin in October that negotiating a remediation agreement would be inappropriate in this particular case.

Wilson-Raybould has told the justice committee she was relentlessly pressured to ensure the Montreal engineering giant was invited to negotiate an agreement. She was shuffled from the justice portfolio in January, becoming veterans affairs minister.

Trudeau has denied that any undue pressure was placed on Wilson-Raybould.

She has testified at the justice committee for nearly four hours, but has indicated there is more to say, particularly about the period between her move to Veterans Affairs and her resignation from cabinet a month later.

Butts, once considered Trudeau’s right-hand man, quit his job as principal secretary, saying he did not want to be a distraction from the government’s agenda. In addition, Jane Philpott left cabinet over the government’s handling of the controversy.

The SNC-Lavalin affair claimed its fourth resignation Monday as Michael Wernick announced he will step down as the country’s top public servant, having concluded he’s lost the trust of opposition parties.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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