(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was plunged back into the biggest scandal of his term just two months before elections, after the nation’s ethics watchdog ruled he inappropriately interfered in a judicial matter.
In a report released Wednesday, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion said Trudeau sought to pressure his former attorney general last year to help SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. settle corruption charges out of court, partly for political reasons. Since the Montreal-based engineering firm would have benefited financially from Trudeau’s efforts, the prime minister’s actions contravened conflict of interest laws, the watchdog concluded.
“The authority of the prime minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit” the attorney general’s authority, Dion said.
The reprimand is a blow to Trudeau, just 10 weeks ahead of an October election, and will bring renewed focus to what has been the most damaging scandal of his administration. The prime minister saw his popularity sink this year amid accusations of judicial interference, though his poll numbers had been lately recovering as the controversy settled over the summer.
The ruling effectively undermines Trudeau’s argument that he did nothing wrong and was only seeking to stave off job losses, chalking up the disagreement with his attorney general to the normal operations of government. At a press conference Wednesday, Trudeau accepted responsibility “for everything that happened,” even though he said he disagreed with some of the conclusions.
“My job as a prime minister is to stand up for Canadians and defend their interests and yes it is essential we do that in a way that defends our institutions, that upholds prosecutorial independence,” Trudeau said. “But we need to be able to talk about the impacts on Canadians right across the country of decisions being made.”
Trudeau said he would implement new measures to reinforce the independence of the attorney general’s office, including new protocols to govern ministerial consultation in specific prosecutions.
The controversy centers around a series of conversations Trudeau and aides had with his then-justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and her staff over whether to help SNC-Lavalin settle a fraud and corruption case dating back to its work in Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya. Issuing a directive to seek a deferred prosecution agreement would shield the firm from a potential conviction and subsequent ban on federal government contracts.
The ethics watchdog, however, found the pressure on Wilson-Raybould “troubling,” and said the evidence showed on at least four separate occasions that political interests to back SNC were put before the attorney general, directly or indirectly.
Wilson-Raybould said she welcomed the report, calling it a “vindication” of the independence of the attorney-general’s office.
“There were multiple attempts to improperly influence my decision as attorney general whether to intervene in a criminal prosecution,” she said in a statement.
The report doesn’t outline any sanctions related to the decision. “It is up to the Prime Minister to implement any further action,” it said.
It’s not the first time Trudeau has violated the act. In a 2017 decision, the ethics commissioner found Trudeau broke rules when he and his family vacationed on an island owned by the Aga Khan.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer admonished Trudeau for being the first prime minister in history to be found guilty of breaking federal ethics laws, and called on police to investigate the matter.
Polling averages compiled by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show the Conservatives and Liberals are statistically tied in voter intentions. After trailing the Liberals for most of the past four years, the Conservatives led by as much as seven percentage points at one point this summer but have seen that lead erode in recent weeks.
--With assistance from Erik Hertzberg.
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