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Trudeau-appointed Independent senator wants to probe issues in SNC-Lavalin affair

Trudeau-appointed Independent senator wants to probe issues in SNC-Lavalin affair


As the Commons committee studying the SNC-Lavalin affair seems to have been put on ice, the Senate is wrestling with whether it should launch its own inquiry on the matter.

But there is a battle brewing between Independent and Conservative senators on what exactly the scope should be for such a study, nearly two months after allegations of inappropriate pressure first surfaced.

While a Conservative motion proposes calling former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, a new Independent plan for a special committee proposes the focus should now shift to the wider issue of prosecutorial independence and bifurcation of the attorney general and justice minister roles.

Independent Quebec Sen. André Pratte, appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said there may not be much more to learn from Wilson-Raybould after her extended committee appearance and the release of documents and a recording. But, the Senate “should not sit on the sidelines while fundamental questions on the administration of justice in this country are being asked,” he said.

The focus, rather, should be how to protect the government’s top lawyer from political pressures in the future, Pratte said.

He is proposing a committee be quickly constituted so that it can meet and study the issue and then report back to the Senate by no later than June 1 — a very tight timeline.

‘A different, more neutral, senatorial approach’

“The [Conservative] hope is obviously to continue to embarrass the government,” Pratte said.

“On the other hand, the government’s aim is to put an end to the controversy. Our objective, as an independent Senate, should be neither to prolong nor to stifle the scandal but to provide a thorough review of the facts … we should suggest a way forward — a different, more neutral, senatorial approach.”

The former La Presse journalist-turned-senator said “the facts are now out in the open,” and thus the special committee he is prepared to launch should not be tasked with investigating what happened in this SNC-Lavalin matter alone.

“Rather, it should reflect on what it all means and what lessons we should learn from what happened. Was the pressure put on the attorney general inappropriate or not? What principles can we use to reach a conclusion? In future, is it possible to pinpoint the rare circumstances in which the attorney general can intervene with the Public Prosecution Service?”

Pratte said deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs), also known as remediation agreements, the legal tool at the heart of this matter, should also be studied by the proposed Senate committee.

Pratte’s proposal faced criticism from the Conservative opposition.

“Middle ground? More like a farce. The Trudeau Senators have dined out for 3 years on putting on a big show. This is no different. This is a smoke screen by the [Independent Senators Group] just like the one by [the Prime Minister’s Office],” Conservative Quebec Sen. Leo Housakos tweeted.

“This is again another example of the games that are being played in this chamber in order to circle the wagons, to defend the prime minister who has done something the Canadian public and the press for weeks have been calling upon him to respond to clearly and unequivocally,” Housakos said in the chamber on Thursday.

The Conservative opposition in the upper house, led by leader Larry Smith, has sought to supplement the Commons justice inquiry with a wide-reaching investigation of their own at the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee.

Smith’s motion featured a long list of potential witnesses, including the prime minister himself, but also Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, and eight others.

That plan has faced head-winds from some Trudeau-appointed Independent senators and the government’s representative in the upper house, Peter Harder, who say such an inquiry would be consumed by partisanship and that such a study is best placed for a Commons committee composed of elected parliamentarians. Tories say such opposition is equally partisan in that it shields the government from further scrutiny.

But Smith withdrew his motion Thursday in favour of another Tory proposal, from Conservative Sen. Don Plett, the party’s whip. That motion suggests calling Wilson-Raybould alone as a witness, a potentially more workable plan with only eight weeks left of Parliament before it rises for the summer recess.

Pratte sought to head off government opposition to his committee proposal — or the suggestion that this Senate body would simply duplicate the study by former Liberal justice minister Anne McClellan — by saying the other work underway on this issue is to be conducted largely in secret.

“Ms. McLellan is not Parliament. Her advice to the prime minister will undoubtedly be very valuable, but many heads are better than one. Moreover, she will not do her work in public as a Senate committee would do, thereby educating both the public and parliamentarians on these complex issues,” Pratte said.



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Japan space probe drops explosive on asteroid to make crater

Japan space probe drops explosive on asteroid to make crater


Japan’s space agency said its Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully dropped an explosive designed to make a crater on an asteroid and collect its underground samples to find possible clues to the origin of the solar system.

Friday’s crater mission is the riskiest for Hayabusa2, as it had to immediately get away so it won’t get hit by flying shards from the blast.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said that Hayabusa2 dropped a “small carry-on impactor” made of copper onto the asteroid Friday morning, and that data confirmed the spacecraft safely evacuated and remained intact. JAXA is analyzing data to examine if or how the impactor made a crater.

The copper explosive is the size of a baseball weighing two kilograms. It was designed to come out of a cone-shaped piece of equipment. A copper plate on its bottom was to turn into a ball during its descent and slam into the asteroid at two kilometres per second.

JAXA plans to send Hayabusa2 back to the site later, when the dust and debris settle, for observations from above and to collect samples from underground that have not been exposed to the sun or space rays. Scientists hope the samples will be crucial to determine the history of the asteroid and our planet.

If successful, it would be the first time for a spacecraft to take such materials. In a 2005 “deep impact” mission to a comet, NASA observed fragments after blasting the surface but did not collect them.

After dropping the impactor, the spacecraft was to move quickly to the other side of the asteroid to avoid flying shards from the blast. While moving away, Hayabusa2 also left a camera to capture the outcome. One of its first photos showed the impactor being successfully released and headed to the asteroid.

Members of The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, seen on screen, celebrate, as Hayabusa2 spacecraft safely evacuated and remained intact after the blast. (Daisuke Suzuki/Kyodo News/Associated Press)

“So far, Hayabusa2 has done everything as planned, and we are delighted,” said mission leader Makoto Yoshikawa. “But we still have more missions to achieve and it’s too early for us to celebrate with ‘banzai.”‘

Hayabusa2 successfully touched down on a tiny flat surface on the boulder-rich asteroid in February, when the spacecraft also collected some surface dust and small debris. The craft is scheduled to leave the asteroid at the end of 2019 and bring surface fragments and underground samples back to Earth in late 2020.

The asteroid, named Ryugu after an undersea palace in a Japanese folktale, is about 300 million kilometres from Earth.



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SNC-Lavalin insider's bribery allegations spark probe by Crown agency that loaned the firm billions

SNC-Lavalin insider’s bribery allegations spark probe by Crown agency that loaned the firm billions


Export Development Canada has hired outside legal counsel to review some of its dealings with SNC-Lavalin. The review comes after a company insider told CBC News the engineering giant secured billions in loans from the Crown agency over the years, some of which he alleges was intended to pay bribes.

If true, it could mean taxpayers have unwittingly backed illegal payments.

Export Development Canada is a federal agency that provides financing and insurance to Canadian businesses operating abroad.

The insider, who worked on several large projects funded by EDC, claims it was an “open secret” within SNC-Lavalin that “technical fees” listed in budget proposals included cash to be used as bribes to secure international contracts.

Those line items could total millions of dollars. The insider says EDC’s internal due diligence policies should have detected something was going on.

He says “technical fees” were part of a larger “lexicon of bribes” used within SNC-Lavalin.

EDC has denied knowledge of any improper payments, but last Friday said it is taking a closer look at a 2011 deal with SNC-Lavalin involving a $250-million project to refurbish the Matala hydroelectric dam in Angola. EDC provided the Quebec-based company with “political risk insurance” for the project.

“We would never, under any circumstances, knowingly participate in a transaction tainted by bribery or corruption,” David Bhamjee, EDC’s vice-president of corporate communications, wrote in an email.

“This behaviour goes against EDC’s core values and deep-rooted culture of business integrity.”

The SNC-Lavalin insider’s allegations come as a political storm rages over accusations Prime Minister Justin Trudeau replaced his attorney general for refusing to intervene and spare the company a criminal prosecution on fraud and corruption charges.

CBC News has agreed not to identify the insider because he fears losing his job.

He says EDC support was vital for the success of construction projects in underdeveloped parts of the world known for corruption. The projects included airports, power plants and dams, and the EDC loans to SNC-Lavalin ranged from a few million dollars to upward of $500 million.

The insider alleges that, prior to 2012 — when the head of SNC-Lavalin’s construction division was arrested in Switzerland for bribery in Libya — EDC was funding numerous projects that featured “slush funds.”

Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, appearing at the Commons justice committee on Feb. 27, says she resisted pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in the fraud and corruption case against SNC-Lavalin and spare the Quebec-based engineering firm a potentially damaging prosecution. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

He says the problems with the technical fees should have been caught by EDC auditors for two reasons. First, he says, they were listed as Canadian expenses, but a portion flowed to consultants or “agents” on the ground in foreign countries to help the company win contracts.

The second red flag, he says, should have been the sheer size of the technical fees, which could total as much as 10 per cent of a project’s overall budget.

“That’s a lot of steak dinners,” the source quipped.

In 2013, CBC News and the Globe and Mail exposed a similar scheme inside SNC-Lavalin. Some budgets included items called “project consultancy costs” or “PCCs.” The code was used to mask secret payments for projects in Africa, India, Cambodia and Kazakhstan.

SNC-Lavalin admitted to CBC News those PCC payments were “improper,” and in 2015, paid a $1.5-million penalty to resolve allegations it bribed public officials to win road projects in Uganda and Mozambique that were funded by the African Development Bank.

None of the projects tied to PCC payments was funded by EDC.

Angola dam project under review

EDC insists that if it learns its funding is being used for bribes or corruption, it cancels the deal.

The Angola dam project first came under scrutiny in 2013, when an SNC-Lavalin employee fired from the job filed a lawsuit claiming the company had covertly paid a 10 per cent commission to win the contract.

SNC-Lavalin settled the suit out of court. It is unclear what steps, if any, EDC took to examine the deal at the time.

The insider recalls there was tension within SNC-Lavalin because numerous bribery scandals involving the company had made headlines.

“There was a lot of breath-holding,” he said. “Some of the projects that were investigated … were projects overseas that were financed by EDC.

“If it had been [exposed publicly], at that time, that a bribe had been paid, EDC would have been obliged never to allow SNC-Lavalin to have access to export credit funds.”

Export Development Canada, the country’s export credit agency, has loaned SNC-Lavalin billions of dollars since the mid-1990s. (CBC)

EDC announced last week it will now review its role in the Angola project, after receiving questions from CBC News. The agency says based on that review, it could expand its probe to look at other past agreements with SNC-Lavalin.

In the past, SNC-Lavalin has blamed rogue employees for problems with the Angola project. This week, the company declined to answer a list of questions about its use of technical fees on other EDC-backed projects.

‘Increasingly concerned’

EDC says it conducts due diligence and that “technical fees and agent fees are common and legitimate operational expenses.”

“We also appreciate that they can be used as one of many mechanisms to hide illegal or improper payments,” Bhamjee wrote. “Those who want to conceal payments take great pains to do so, making these payments extremely difficult to uncover.”

However, EDC says it did not begin scrutinizing these types of fees until 2006, when the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development issued a warning about their potential abuse.

“We remain confident that the processes we undertook throughout our financing history with the company were sound and adhered to best practices of the day,” wrote EDC spokesperson Jessica Draker.

Over the past 25 years, EDC has provided as much as $4.7 billion in loans to SNC-Lavalin for ventures in Europe, Africa and Latin America, making the company one of the largest recipients of taxpayer-backed loans.

EDC concedes it was slow to suspend funding for new SNC-Lavalin projects, which it did from late 2014 until 2017, as the company faced multiple scandals.

The World Bank sounded an alarm in 2012 over allegations SNC-Lavalin tried to bribe officials in Bangladesh. It has banned the company from bidding on World Bank projects until 2023.

“In the years leading up to our suspension, we became increasingly concerned about the myriad allegations facing the company,” said EDC’s David Bhamjee, noting EDC did beef up monitoring of SNC-Lavalin deals.

“We could have — and perhaps should have — suspended business earlier,” he said.

EDC only resumed doing business with SNC-Lavalin in 2017, after the company overhauled its internal accounting and whistleblower policies, he said.

‘Black box’

The head of Toronto-based watchdog group Probe International says if there’s any truth to the allegations EDC money was used for bribes, it implicates all Canadians.

“[EDC] operates on the Queen’s credit card,” said Patricia Adams. “That means that it operates on our credit cards.”

According to EDC’s website the Crown agency operates at arm’s length from government and is “self-financing.”

However, Adams says all of its debts and liabilities are backed by the government.

“It doesn’t exist but for the Canadian taxpayer.”

Adams says the public has very little idea of how the Crown agency operates.

“[It] is a secretive institution that sets its own rules and standards and regulates itself, with little public oversight,” she said.

“They’re a black box.”

Patricia Adams of the watchdog group Probe International says Canadians need to know more about how EDC operates. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

One EDC-backed SNC-Lavalin project is currently under investigation by the RCMP.

The case dates back to the early 2000s. RCMP investigators believe SNC-Lavalin funnelled $2.3 million from a contract to build an airport hangar in Algeria to pay bribes in Canada, according to a search warrant issued last year.

Michel Fournier, the former head of Canada’s Federal Bridge Corporation, which maintains several of the country’s largest overpasses, has already pleaded guilty to accepting the money in exchange for helping SNC-Lavalin win a $127-million contract to refurbish Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge.

When asked about the ongoing RCMP probe, SNC-Lavalin replied: “No comment.”

Send tips to dave.seglins@cbc.ca or rachel.houlihan@cbc.ca.



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Federal privacy watchdog to probe leak of confidential information on SCC candidate

Federal privacy watchdog to probe leak of confidential information on SCC candidate


Canada’s privacy watchdog is investigating leaks of confidential information about a candidate for the Supreme Court of Canada.

Conservative and NDP MPs had asked for the probe.

“Under the Privacy Act, our office is required to investigate all complaints that fall within our jurisdiction,” said Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the privacy commissioner’s office.

In a letter to federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, NDP MP Charlie Angus calls the leak of private information about Manitoba Superior Court Chief Justice Glenn Joyal’s application for a position on the high court “shocking.”

“It is not only an attack on the independence of the judiciary and a mark of flagrant disrespect for the importance of its work, but potentially a breach of the Privacy Act,” Angus wrote.

The request came after Mar. 25 reports by CTV and The Canadian Press revealed that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Jody Wilson-Raybould were at odds in 2017 over whether Joyal should be appointed to the Supreme Court.

The CP story said sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal discussions about a Supreme Court appointment, which typically are considered highly confidential.

The reports came out amid a growing controversy over the SNC-Lavalin affair, and suggested the Joyal appointment was a second point of conflict between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould, who was justice minister and attorney general at the time.

The story said Joyal’s views on the Charter of Rights issues led to “significant disagreement” between the two. Trudeau’s office and Wilson-Raybould denied being the source of the leaks.

Joyal withdrew application

In a statement, Joyal said he withdrew his application due to his wife’s illness and decried the leak of confidential information about his candidacy.

“I fear that someone is using my previous candidacy to the Supreme Court of Canada to further an agenda unrelated to the appointment process. This is wrong,” he said in a statement.

Sheilah Martin ultimately was appointed to the top court, and Richard Wagner was named Chief Justice.

Cohen confirmed an investigation will include organizations covered by the Privacy Act, including the Privy Council Office and the Department of Justice. The Privacy Act does not give the commissioner jurisdiction over ministerial offices, though Cohen said the commissioner has recommended in past that the Act be extended to all government institutions, including ministers’ offices and the PMO.

Conservative MP Peter Kent also asked Therrien to investigate.

“Confidentiality in the process of judicial appointments is crucial to protecting the integrity of the selection process. This confidentiality also seeks to ensure that the reputations of judges not ultimately selected are not tarnished,” he said in a letter to the commissioner.

“It is of great concern that as a result of this unauthorized disclosure, the reputation of a respected jurist may have been damaged for political purposes.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus wants Canada’s privacy commissioner to probe a confidential leak about a former Supreme Court candidate. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Angus said that if a government institution was behind the breach of Joyal’s personal information, it could be a violation of the Privacy Act.

Angus noted that judicial applications go to the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs. The commissioner’s privacy notice to applicants says personal information collected is used by the advisory board to assess applications and provide a list of qualified candidates to the prime minister.

Angus asked Therrien to determine if the leak came from Privy Council Office, the Office of the Commissioner of Federal Judicial Affairs, the Department of Justice or the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.



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