March 7, 2019 / 1:37 PM / a year ago

Canada PM Trudeau defends handling of SNC-Lavalin crisis, admits errors

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday defended his government’s handling of a political crisis that could dash his chances of winning re-election in October, while admitting some mistakes had been made.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Patrick Doyle

Trudeau’s Liberal government has been on the defensive for a month over allegations by former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould that officials inappropriately pressured her last year to help construction firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc avoid a criminal trial.

“I can repeat and reassure Canadians that there was no breakdown of our systems, of our rule of law, of the integrity of our institutions,” Trudeau told a news conference.

The crisis has so far prompted the resignation of two high- profile Liberal cabinet ministers and Trudeau’s closest political aide, Gerald Butts.

Polls show that Trudeau’s Liberals trail the official opposition Conservatives ahead of the October election.

Butts, testifying to the House of Commons justice committee on Wednesday, denied he had crossed the line by asking Wilson-Raybould to consider offering SNC-Lavalin a deal to avoid a trial on charges of bribing Libyan officials.

“There was never any inappropriate pressure,” said Trudeau.

Although Trudeau has addressed the crisis a number of times in previous media availabilities, this was the first time he has called a press conference to specifically talk about the affair.

“As we look back over the past weeks, there are many lessons to be learned and many things we would have liked to have done differently,” Trudeau said.

SNC-Lavalin, which employs 9,000 people in Canada, was seeking a so-called deferred prosecution agreement to allow the firm to escape with a fine. Wilson-Raybould had the power to scrap the decision to go to trial but decided against it.

Wilson-Raybould told the House of Commons justice committee last week that officials, citing the need to protect jobs, kept on pressing her to reconsider even after she made clear her mind was made up.

“We considered she was still open to hearing different arguments, different approaches on what her decision could be. As we now learn through this testimony, that was not the case,” said Trudeau.

He said relations between his office and Wilson-Raybould had clearly been fraying for months.

“I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As prime minister ... I should have been,” Trudeau said.

Wilson-Raybould, unexpectedly demoted to the veterans affairs ministry in January, quit on Feb. 12.

Reporting by David Ljunggren and Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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