February 19, 2019 / 10:20 PM / 9 months ago

UPDATE 1-Ex-Canada minister at center of ethics allegations set to testify

(Recasts with former minister to testify)

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA, Feb 19 (Reuters) - The former Canadian justice minister at the center of allegations of wrongdoing by government officials said on Tuesday she would break her silence as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s team sought to defuse the biggest crisis of his career.

The Liberal government has been on the defensive since the Globe and Mail newspaper reported on Feb. 7 that officials had pressured former minister Jody Wilson-Raybould last year to help construction company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc escape with a fine rather than face trial on charges of bribing Libyan officials. SNC has declined to comment.

Wilson-Raybould, who was demoted in January, resigned last week. She has said nothing so far about the matter.

The House of Commons justice committee met on Tuesday behind closed doors to discuss whom to question about the affair and Liberal legislator Iqra Khalid tweeted that she would invite Wilson-Raybould to appear.

“I respect the justice committee and I will appear,” Wilson-Raybould told the CBC television, adding she was still consulting lawyers to see how much she could say.

A date for her appearance has not been confirmed but officials said it could be as early as Thursday.

The same committee, on which the Liberals hold a majority, last week decided not to hear from her, prompting opposition accusations of a cover-up. Wilson-Raybould in an unusual move met with members of the cabinet on Tuesday. She declined to give details.

Trudeau’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether a deal had been struck with the former minister to spare the government embarrassment.

Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal private secretary and one of the architects of the Liberals’ surprise 2015 election win, quit on Monday while insisting he had done nothing wrong.

Underlining the extent of Trudeau’s problems, a new poll showed his ruling center-left Liberals had slipped behind their main rivals ahead of an election in October. Opposition parties are demanding a public inquiry.

Andrew Scheer, leader of the official opposition center-right Conservatives, told the House of Commons that the resignation of Butts would not clear up the matter.

“This is not an ordinary political scandal. Something more sinister is at play here ... if a crime has been committed, those responsible must be punished,” he said, suggesting officials may have obstructed justice.

An Ipsos-Reid poll for Global News taken after Wilson-Raybould’s resignation showed the Liberals support had dropped four percentage points since December to 34 percent, with the Conservatives up two points at 36 percent.

The survey suggests that if an election were held now, no party would have enough legislators to form a stable government.

A Trudeau spokeswoman said no decision had been taken on who would replace Butts.

One potential candidate is David MacNaughton, the influential Canadian ambassador to Washington who helped successfully negotiate the renewal of a continental trade pact last year, said two well-placed Liberals.

MacNaughton, 70, enjoys cabinet level status inside the Trudeau government and also has experience of working with Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff. MacNaughton declined to comment when contacted by Reuters. (Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman)

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