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Canada’s Trudeau denies interfering in SNC-Lavalin case

Dave Chan/Getty Images/AFP | Canada's PM Justin Trudeau at a news conference on March 7, 2019 in Ottawa, Canada.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that an "erosion of trust" and "lack of communication" with his former justice minister led her to resign amid a political crisis that could dash his re-election hopes.

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Trudeau's Liberal government has been on the defensive for a month over allegations by former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould that officials inappropriately pressured her last year to help construction firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc avoid a corruption trial in connection with nearly $48 million in payments made to Libyan government officials.

"I can repeat and reassure Canadians that there was no breakdown of our systems, of our rule of law, of the integrity of our institutions," Trudeau told a news conference.

The crisis has so far prompted the resignation of two high-profile Liberal cabinet ministers and Trudeau's closest political aide, Gerald Butts.

'Standing up for jobs'

Trudeau and his aides deny doing anything wrong, saying they were only pointing out that prosecution could endanger thousands of people's jobs because a conviction would make the company ineligible for government contracts. SNC-Lavalin Group Inc, based in Montreal, is the largest construction company by revenue in Canada with 50,000 employees.

"In regards to standing up for jobs and defending the integrity of our rule of law, I continue to say there was no inappropriate pressure," Trudeau said.

Trudeau said Wilson-Raybould did not come to him to express her concerns and said he wishes she had. He said situations were "experienced differently and I regret that."

"I am obviously reflecting on lessons learned," he said. "There are things we have to reflect on and understand and do better next time."

Ex-justice minister did not approach PM with her concerns

Earlier this week, a new poll showed support for the beleaguered prime minister and his Liberals falling for the first time behind the opposition Tories, amid calls for Trudeau's resignation.

Following days of testimony by Wilson-Raybould and others before the House of Commons justice committee, Trudeau said he now understands how badly relations between his office and Wilson-Raybould had soured over the affair, and took some responsibility.

"I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As prime minister, I should have been," he said, vowing to "do better next time."

But he added, Wilson-Raybould also should have been more forthcoming with her concerns. "She did not come to me and I wish she had," he said.

Libyan links

The scandal centers on allegations that Trudeau's inner circle intervened to shield the firm, that generates billions of Canadian dollars in revenue, from a bribery trial.

SNC-Lavalin faces corruption charges for allegedly paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes between 2001 and 2011 to secure Libyan government contracts under the rule of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

SNC-Lavalin openly lobbied the Canadian government for an out-of-court settlement that would mean paying a fine and agreeing to stricter compliance measures.

A conviction, the company argued, risked crippling its business and putting thousands out of work.

Wilson-Raybould refused to ask prosecutors to settle, and the trial is set to proceed.

Trudeau himself discussed the case with Wilson-Raybould once last September 17, but denied any undue pressure was applied on her.

"There was no inappropriate pressure," he said, adding "that the decision was hers alone."

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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