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Trudeau Violated Ethics Law in SNC-Lavalin Case, Watchdog Finds

OTTAWA — Canada’s federal ethics commissioner found on Wednesday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had violated an ethics law in his handling of a corporate criminal case — a conclusion that could imperil Mr. Trudeau’s bid for a second term just months before the national elections.

In a long-awaited report, the commissioner, Mario Dion, said Mr. Trudeau had used his office “to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit” the former justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, by improperly pressuring her over the criminal case. This, the commissioner said, broke a longstanding tradition of separating the justice system from political interference.

“The way this happened shouldn’t have happened, and I take responsibility for the mistakes that I made,” Mr. Trudeau said at an event in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, answering reporters’ questions after the report was released. “The buck stops with the prime minister.”

Mr. Trudeau said, however, that he disagreed with the ethics commissioner’s view that any contact between a prime minister and the attorney general is inappropriate.

Although Mr. Trudeau faces no direct penalty as a result of the ethics commissioner’s finding, its release just weeks before campaigning begins for the October elections could endanger his re-election effort, giving his adversaries plenty of ammunition.

The prime minister came to office in 2015 with great fanfare, as a new face with a new approach to politics — what he called “sunny ways.” He created a gender-balanced cabinet. He promised to push for protections against climate change while also protecting the energy business. He said the country should reconcile with its Indigenous population, correcting historical wrongs.

His critics, though, argue that his treatment of Ms. Wilson-Raybould showed that Mr. Trudeau was an old-fashioned politician who plays back-room politics even if those rooms are no longer filled with smoke.

“He promised he would be different,” said Andrew Scheer, the Conservative leader, speaking on Wednesday after the ethics commissioner issued his report. “We now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Justin Trudeau is not as advertised.”

While Mr. Scheer, who will be Mr. Trudeau’s main challenger in the election, has repeatedly called for Mr. Trudeau’s resignation, on Wednesday he said that no longer makes sense this close to the vote.

“I believe Canadians will make the right choice and get rid of a scandal-plagued prime minister,” Mr. Scheer told reporters.

Earlier this year, Ms. Wilson-Raybould accused the prime minister and members of his staff of pushing her to settle a bribery case against a major Canadian engineering company, SNC-Lavalin, with a fine that avoided a criminal conviction. SNC-Lavalin, a multinational engineering company based in Quebec, was charged with bribing officials in Libya to win contracts there, and defrauding the Libyan government.

[Catch up on how Mr. Trudeau became entangled in the scandal and accused of “veiled threats” by his former justice minister.]

When news of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s accusations broke, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party plummeted in polls. Though the party has recently clawed its way back, the new report is likely to rekindle the party’s problems even among its own supporters.

Some women, whose votes helped ensure the victory of the Liberals in 2015, have said Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s accusations that he tried to improperly pressure her — even bully her — undermined his claim that he is a feminist.

The controversy has also soured relations with some Indigenous people who were elated when Ms. Wilson-Raybould, a former First Nations regional chief from British Columbia, was appointed to the cabinet.

Mr. Trudeau has steadfastly refused to apologize and has characterized the controversy as a difference of opinion.

In his version of events, the prime minister said he was not trying to strong-arm a female Indigenous minister, but was acting out of concern for thousands of jobs in Canada, because a criminal conviction would bar SNC-Lavalin from bidding on government contracts, a significant part of its business.

On Wednesday, though, Mr. Trudeau acknowledged that he failed to properly balance judicial independence with his need to save jobs.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who was also the attorney general, did not agree to pursue a civil penalty, and was demoted to a different cabinet position. Eventually, she left Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet altogether, and was later thrown out of the Liberal caucus by the prime minister.

Another prominent woman in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet, Jane Philpott, quit in solidarity and was also removed from the party, further damaging the prime minister’s standing with women.

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