Butts' newly released texts with Wilson-Raybould show tension over shuffle
The prime minister’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, has submitted text conversations he had with Jody Wilson-Raybould that show the tensions between the PMO and the former justice minister as she was being shuffled into a different portfolio.
In the documents Butts submitted to the House Justice Committee, obtained by CTV News ahead of their public release, he reiterates his “strong disagreement” with some of the evidence Wilson-Raybould has provided to the committee so far. Butts’ latest submission also includes a new statement and hand-written notes he made during a Jan. 7 call with Wilson-Raybould and the prime minister.
The text messages he provided show that Wilson-Raybould felt she was being moved out of the justice portfolio for reasons other than what Butts was telling her.
While nowhere in the text exchange does she specifically mention the SNC-Lavalin file, she later expressed to the justice committee that she believed she was being shuffled over her position on the prosecution of the Quebec company. In the messages Butts repeatedly told her that these unspecified other reasons were not why the cabinet would be shuffled on Jan. 14.
“Timing of ‘pushing’ me out (which will be the perception – whether true or not) is terrible – it will be confounding and perplexing to people,” Wilson-Raybould wrote in a text message to Butts on Jan. 8, according to screenshots of the conversation he submitted.
“This situation is only going to deepen and I am very worried about it,” she wrote, adding that she has been getting texts and emails from concerned Indigenous leaders.
In that message, Wilson-Raybould appeared to reference the protests in support of a British Columbia First Nation that had been blocking an access road to a pipeline project.
“Nobody is ‘pushing you out,’” Butts wrote back. “In fact, the PM has taken the extraordinary (in my experience unique) step of offering an alternative Cabinet post to you.”
The text exchange also showed that Butts was asking Wilson-Raybould’s input on having her chief of staff Jessica Prince move ministries with her. Wilson-Raybould said yes, but pushed back that it was perhaps part of a plan to have one of the senior PMO staffers who she alleged pressured her take over the chief of staff to the justice minister role. Butts denied that was the case and it ultimately did not happen.
In his March 6 testimony to the justice committee, Butts said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted to move Wilson-Raybould to Indigenous Services but she turned down that post, saying she had spent her entire life fighting the Indian Act. Trudeau then moved her to Veterans Affairs instead, but she resigned from cabinet on Feb. 12, after the SNC-Lavalin scandal broke.
At the heart of the scandal are Wilson-Raybould’s allegations that she faced sustained and improper pressure from senior government officials to interfere in a criminal case against the Quebec engineering and construction firm, which faces bribery charges related to contracts in Libya.
Trudeau, Butts and other senior officials she named in her testimony and submissions to the justice committee have repeatedly denied that there was any improper pressure in the case.
In a text message from Jan. 12, according to the screenshots Butts submitted, Wilson-Raybould told him that she felt “compelled to say -- one last time” that moving her out of the justice portfolio is a “mistake.”
“My eyes are wide open on this shift,” she wrote, noting that she is proud of the work she had done as justice minister and attorney general.
“I stand behind this hard work and all of my decisions and legal advice.”
Butts replied by saying, “I know this is tough, but we have very good ideas to make it all work from a comms perspective.”
He also told her that the cabinet shuffle is an “opportunity” for Wilson-Raybould to “show people a side of yourself and your talent that you did not get as MOJAG [minister of justice and attorney general].”
Butts also texted Wilson-Raybould that Scott Brison’s resignation as Treasury Board president left “a large hole in a major department” that required a senior minister to fill. Jane Philpott, who was the Indigenous Services minister at the time, was “the only person” who fit that bill, according to Butts. He said that’s why Trudeau wanted Wilson-Raybould to fill the “equally senior role” at Indigenous Services.
In early March, Philpott also resigned from cabinet, citing Wilson-Raybould’s allegations of political interference in the SNC-Lavalin case.
"Nobody wanted to move but everyone pitched in for the sake of the team,” Butts wrote.
Butts also submitted hand-written notes he took during a Jan. 7 call with Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould, in which the prime minister is said to have told her, “We would not be doing this if it weren’t for Scott’s decision.”
Wilson-Raybould disagreed and said, “I feel I’m being shifted out of Justice for other reasons,” according to Butts’ notes. He also noted that she said the role of Indigenous Services minister “is not my dream job.”
In the submitted transcription of these notes, Butts also quotes the prime minister as saying “after an election, everything is fresh again.”
Reacting to the new documents, Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt picked up on this, and made a point of how much political discussion was happening around the shuffle.
“She knew she was getting pushed out,” Raitt said. “More so it just shows the amount of pressure that she was under and the amount of conversation that had taken place.”
Butts: ‘I stand by statement and evidence’
In the letter Butts submitted to the justice committee along with text conversations and a hand-written note, he rebuts some of the statements Wilson-Raybould made in her own submissions to the committee.
Butts disagreed with Wilson-Raybould’s “characterization” of a conversation her then-chief of staff Jessica Prince had with Butts and Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford on Dec. 18.
Wilson-Raybould had said that Prince told her that Butts pointed to the case of David Milgaard, who was wrongfully convicted for murder in 1970, and exonerated more than two decades later. Butts allegedly told Prince that Kim Campbell, who was then the attorney general, was asked by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney to review the case after Mulroney met with Milgaard's mother.
Wilson-Raybould said she subsequently met with Campbell, who “categorically denied what Mr. Butts had said and was quite offended and outraged by the comments.”
In his latest submission to the committee, Butts said he was merely asking Prince to explain the difference between the Milgaard case and the SNC-Lavalin case “from a legal perspective” because Prince is a lawyer and “I am not.”
He said he was not citing the Milgaard case as a historical precedent.
Butts also denied that he and others in the PMO had implied that “we could engineer a desired outcome by influencing third party advice” on the SNC-Lavalin matter.
“I said that I didn’t see how getting advice from someone like retired Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin constituted political interference,” he wrote in his letter to the committee.
He ended the letter with: “I stand by my statement and evidence of March 6, 2019 in its entirety.”
With files from CTV News' Michel Boyer and Rachel Aiello