Ex-aide to Canada PM says did not pressure former justice minister

Gerald Butts, who quit last month as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief aide, arrives to testify to the House of Commons justice committee, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, February 6, 2019. REUTERS/Patrick Doyle

OTTAWA (Reuters) – A former key aide to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is at the center of a major political crisis, on Wednesday denied he had pressured the then-justice minister to allow a major firm to avoid a corruption trial last year.

Gerald Butts, addressing an incident that has cost Trudeau two senior cabinet ministers so far, said he had one short conversation with the minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, about helping construction company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

“I did not and I do not see how our brief discussion on that file constituted pressure of any kind,” Butts told the House of Commons justice committee. “I am firmly convinced that nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government.”

Butts quit as Trudeau’s principal private secretary on Feb 18. The incident could threaten the ruling Liberals’ chances of retaining power in an October election.

Wilson-Raybould told the House of Commons justice committee last week that Butts and other senior officials had subjected her to persistent and inappropriate pressure to help SNC-Lavalin evade a trial on charges of bribing Libyan officials.

“What happened last fall is in fact very different from the version of events you heard last week,” said Butts.

The firm, which employs 9,000 people in Canada, is based in the province of Quebec, where Trudeau’s Liberals need to pick up seats to win a federal election set for October.

Wilson-Raybould said 11 officials and ministers had contacted her and her office a total of 20 times over four months about the SNC-Lavalin affair.

“That is two meetings and two phone calls per month for the minister and her office on an issue that could cost a minimum of 9,000 Canadians their job,” said Butts.

A second member of Trudeau’s Cabinet resigned on Monday, saying she had lost confidence in how the government had dealt with the matter. Treasury Board President Jane Philpott was one of the most respected members of government, and political observers described her departure as a major blow.

Wilson-Raybould told the committee last week that Butts had told her chief of staff there was no solution to the matter without some interference.

“That is not what I said,” Butts responded, when asked about the allegation.

Although some nervous Liberal legislators say Trudeau needs to make changes to his inner circle and that there is a lack of communication from top aides, a government official said the prime minister would not make major strategy changes.

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