• Allison Baker

FACT CHECK: Is Pressure by the PMO Up for "Interpretation"?

MOSTLY TRUE. “Pressure” doesn’t have a strict definition, but there are limits to what it can mean in the context of the relationship between the Prime Minister's Office and other departments.

In early February, the Globe and Mail published a story alleging someone from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had attempted to "pressure" then Attorney General and Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould into staying criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin. In 2015, the RCMP charged the Quebec engineering and construction company with fraud and corruption stemming from some of their operations in Libya.

On Monday, Twitter user @humourme1234—a self-described “info junkie” who often comments on the Liberal government—posted a video condemning the Globe’s story about the SNC-Lavalin affair and subsequent media coverage. He says that “under the law, the government is allowed and expected to consult with the AG’s [Attorney General’s] office” and Wilson-Raybould herself. He later claims that the alleged “pressure” by the PMO is up for interpretation: “one interpretation of pressure might be another’s normal consultation.” The implication is that even if the PMO did attempt to somehow pressure Wilson-Raybould, depending on the context, it may not have been a violation of any standards or laws.

This explanation is mostly true: the video’s description of the Attorney General’s responsibilities and relationship to the PMO are reasonably accurate, and it’s true that the term pressure could cover a variety of different acts—but the situation is not as subjective as implied.

The Globe article outlining the allegations uses the term “heavy pressure”—not just “pressure,” as @humourme1234 says. One of the Attorney General’s responsibilities as outlined by the Ministry is to “advise the Government upon all matters of law connected with legislative enactments and upon all matters of law referred to him or her by the Government.” But when it comes to criminal prosecutions, “the Attorney General must carry out the Minister's criminal prosecution responsibilities independent of Cabinet and of any partisan political pressures.” Therefore, any political pressure applied on Wilson-Raybould by a member of the PMO that might have compromised her independence is in violation of the Attorney General’s mandate.

There is, of course, no set definition of political pressure, which leaves the allegations against the PMO open to various possibilities. Undue influence is described by the American Bar Society as “excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity.”

The facts surrounding the SCN-Lavalin story have not been confirmed by all parties and continue to be uncovered. In an episode of CTV’s The Scrum last week, Robert Firth, the Globe’s Ottawa Bureau Chief, said that, according to anonymous sources, the PMO had pressured Wilson-Raybould to ask Canada’s director of public prosecutions to negotiate a “remediation agreement” with SNC-Lavalin. Wilson-Raybould reportedly refused to do this, and sources claim that she was moved to Minister of Veterans Affairs. On Thursday, Wilson-Raybould maintained that she cannot yet waive “privilege and confidentiality” but hopes to have the opportunity to “speak [her] truth.”

A remediation agreement is, in the simplest terms, a kind of plea deal. According to the Department of Justice Canada, it allows corporations to come to an agreement with a prosecutor—and with court approval—that would essentially stay any charges or proceedings until the criteria (often involving a financial penalty) of the agreement is met. Remediation agreements mean no criminal conviction results from criminal charges. This is something that has been used in the United States and Britain, but that only recently was approved in Canada.