Canadian PM Justin Trudeau did not inappropriately pressure a former justice minister to grant a legal favour to a firm facing a criminal trial, a former senior aide has said.
Gerald Butts said the prime minister simply wanted Jody Wilson-Raybould to seek outside legal advice on a matter that placed jobs at risk.
She claims there were attempts at political meddling in matter.
The controversy has become a major political crisis for Mr Trudeau.
Speaking on Wednesday before a House of Commons Justice Committee, Mr Butts said: “I am firmly convinced nothing happened beyond the normal operations of government”.
He quit as Mr Trudeau’s principal private secretary mid-February.
Former attorney general and justice minister Wilson-Raybould said last week that she faced attempts at interference and “veiled threats” from the prime minister and members of his inner circle over a corruption trial facing Quebec-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
She said she was subjected to repeated pressure over four months late last year to “find a solution” for the firm.
Mr Butts said that it was always understood that any final decision on whether to offer SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement was for the attorney general alone to make.
In Canada, the attorney general is supposed to exercise independent prosecutorial discretion, without any political interference.
That agreement would have allowed the firm to avoid a criminal trial and instead agree to alternative terms or conditions, like penalties or enhanced compliance measures.
The company and two of its subsidiaries face fraud and corruption charges in relation to approximately C$48m ($36m; £28m) in bribes it is alleged to have offered to Libyan officials between 2001 and 2011.
A conviction could result in a decade-long ban on bidding on Canadian federal contracts, which would be a major financial hit for the firm.
Mr Butts said the fact that a trial could put thousands of jobs at risk made the matter a “very real public policy problem” for the government.
The prime minister has been struggling to contain the political crisis over the matter that has cost him two top ministers including Ms Wilson-Raybould – in the past few weeks.
Former Treasury Board President Jane Philpott followed Ms Wilson-Raybould out the door this week, resigning this week saying she had “serious concerns” with “evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin”.
What else did Mr Butts say?
On Wednesday, Mr Butts had a very different description of the conversations the prime minister and various officials had with Ms Wilson-Raybould with regards to the firm’s prosecution.
He said he only had brief and cordial discussions with the former minister with regards to SNC-Lavalin.
“People can come away from the same experience with different impressions,” he said.
Ms Wilson-Raybould told the committee last week that he had told her chief of staff “there is no solution here that doesn’t involve some interference”.
“That is not what I said,” Mr Butts responded, when asked about the allegation.
Mr Butts also denied that Ms Wilson-Raybould removal as justice minister and attorney general in a cabinet shuffle in January had anything to do with her refusal to budge on SNC-Lavalin.
He said there were many “complex considerations” made in a shuffle and that “SNC-Lavalin was not one of them”. She was eventually moved to the veterans affairs portfolio before resigning.
What is happening with SNC Lavalin?
The Quebec-based firm is one of the world’s largest engineering and construction companies.
The firm has openly lobbied to be allowed to enter into a remediation agreement instead of going to trial, saying it has cleaned house and changed its ways.
The agreement – similar to regimes in the US and the UK – essentially suspends prosecution while allowing a firm to agree instead to alternative terms or conditions.
The Liberal government brought in the remediation agreement regime in 2018.
SNC-Lavalin and its supporters say it would be unfair to penalise the company as a whole and its thousands of employees for the wrongdoings of former executives.
The matter is proceeding to trial and the company says it will “vigorously defend itself” against the allegations.