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Justin Trudeau’s top advisor Gerald Butts resigns over claims government interfered in criminal case

Close friend to Canadian prime minister denies wrongdoing in resignation letter

Ian Austen
Tuesday 19 February 2019 16:16 GMT
Butts' resignation will leave a significant void in Justin Trudeau's campaign team just eight months before an election
Butts' resignation will leave a significant void in Justin Trudeau's campaign team just eight months before an election (Reuters)

The top political adviser to Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, resigned on Monday, deepening a political crisis over allegations that the government tried to interfere in a criminal court case.

In a statement announcing his departure, Gerald Butts, who has been a close friend of Mr Trudeau’s since their university days, linked his leaving to the allegations that he, the prime minister and others improperly pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, when she was the justice minister and attorney general, to quash the criminal prosecution of a major Canadian engineering and construction company.

Mr Butts repeatedly denied in his resignation letter that any such action took place.

“Any accusation that I or the staff put pressure on the attorney general is simply not true,” Mr Butts wrote. “But the fact is that this accusation exists. It cannot and should not take one moment away from the vital work the prime minister and his office is doing for all Canadians.

He added: “It is in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away."

His resignation came a week after Ms Wilson-Raybould resigned from the Trudeau Cabinet. In January, she had been moved from the post of justice minister to minister of veteran’s affairs, a switch widely seen as a demotion.

Rather than calming the growing political storm around Mr Trudeau, Mr Butts’ resignation only seemed to intensify it.

“It opens up another front,” said Patrick Gossage, who was press secretary to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the former prime minister and Justin Trudeau’s father. “It raises more questions than it answers. Did he really have nothing to do with making Jody Wilson-Raybould feel she wasn’t wanted? I don’t think it solves anything.”

Mr Butts’ absence will leave a significant void in Mr Trudeau’s leadership and campaign team just eight months before an election. The son of a coal miner from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Mr Butts met Mr Trudeau at the debating club at McGill University in Montreal, and the two have remained friends ever since.

After working as a senior aide in a Liberal provincial government in Ontario, Mr Butts was among a small group who brought Mr Trudeau, a teacher, into politics and taught him its craft. Mr Butts was a key player in the successful election campaign in 2015 that defied expectations by raising the Liberals from third place in polls to victory, making Mr Trudeau prime minister.

Since then, Mr Butts has acted as Mr Trudeau’s principal secretary and was widely viewed as the most powerful player within the prime minister’s office. He was known for aggressively challenging critics of the government on Twitter.

Mr Gossage said the loss of Mr Butts’ guidance is a significant blow for Mr Trudeau and the Liberal Party.

“The last year before an election, you don’t leave your boss behind,” Mr Gossage said.

The allegations of government interference in the criminal case first surfaced in a Globe and Mail article that cited anonymous sources. According to the newspaper, the prime minister and his staff pushed Ms Wilson-Raybould to cut a deal for the company, SNC-Lavalin. A Montreal-based engineering and construction firm, SNC-Lavalin was accused of paying multimillion bribes to secure contracts in Libya when that country was ruled by dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

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A criminal conviction would bar the company, which has about 52,000 employees worldwide, from working for the government of Canada for 10 years. It was feared that could harm SNC-Lavalin financially or leave it vulnerable to a foreign takeover.

Mr Trudeau’s office confirmed last week that Ms Wilson-Raybould brought the case up in a conversation with Mr Butts, but declined to offer any details about what was said.

In the end federal prosecutors, who in Canada’s system are supposed to be independent of politicians, decided to continue to prosecute the company rather than seek a settlement under a new law introduced by Mr Trudeau’s government last March. That measure allows companies to pay a substantial fine and show they have resolved their ethics issues to avoid a criminal conviction. Two successive premiers in Quebec have called for such a deal to be struck.

Last week, the episode went from involving only anonymous allegations to a major political challenge when the federal ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, said he would investigate the prime minister’s actions.

Since her resignation, Ms Wilson-Raybould has neither said anything about the affair nor offered an explanation for why she left the government. Pointing to her demotion, then sudden departure, opposition politicians have charged, without offering any proof, that she was being punished for not yielding on the SNC-Lavalin case.

In his resignation letter, Mr Butts noted he had encouraged Ms Wilson-Raybould, a former prosecutor and indigenous leader from British Columbia, to enter politics.

“From my perspective our relationship has always been defined by mutual respect, candour and an honest desire to work together,” he wrote.

The New York Times

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