OTTAWA — "Clearly the RCMP are taking this seriously enough to start investigating individuals in the Prime Minister's Office."
— Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Sept. 11 in Ottawa
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was eager to talk about the latest development in the ongoing saga of SNC-Lavalin as he prepared to board his campaign plane Wednesday, an issue that threatens to haunt Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau ahead of the Oct. 21 election.
The Globe and Mail published a story late the night before the election was called, saying the RCMP has been looking into potential obstruction of justice in the SNC-Lavalin affair, and that the federal police force was not granted access to any more materials than ethics commissioner Mario Dion had received as he conducted his own examination.
Dion's report, released last month, concluded Trudeau had contravened the Conflict of Interest Act when he tried to pressure former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould into intervening to head off criminal proceedings on corruption charges against the Montreal engineering giant.
"Clearly the RCMP are taking this seriously enough to start investigating individuals in the Prime Minister's Office," Scheer said Wednesday.
Is the RCMP really investigating people in the PMO? During an election campaign?
The RCMP has never said it is investigating the Liberal government — or, as Scheer claimed, people in the PMO — in relation to the SNC-Lavalin affair.
The most the national police force said, when everyone was looking for a reaction to the report from the ethics commissioner, was that it was "examining this matter carefully with all available information" and would follow up if need be.
Now that an election campaign is officially underway, the RCMP is saying even less.
"Unfortunately, we are not in a position to confirm anything in that regard at this time," said Stephanie Dumoulin, a spokeswoman for the RCMP National Division, which deals with cases that are considered sensitive for political and other reasons.
The Liberal campaign flatly denied anyone in the PMO has been called up by the RCMP.
"No member of staff has been contacted and no materials have been requested," Joe Pickerill, a Liberal campaign spokesman, said in an email when asked to respond to the statement by Scheer. The response applies to both current and former staffers, he elaborated.
Later on Wednesday, the Liberal campaign added the RCMP has not contacted Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau or Justice Minister David Lametti, who succeeded Wilson-Raybould in a January cabinet shuffle.
Trudeau has defended himself by insisting he was acting in the best interests of Canadians.
The Conservative campaign, meanwhile, said Scheer was basing his statement on the information in the story.
"The story refers to 'investigators,' " said spokesman Simon Jefferies.
"Investigators investigate things," he said in an email. "The Trudeau Liberals are playing ridiculous word games."
One of the problems is that "investigation" can mean different things to different people — even the police.
Natalie Wright, spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said there is no one standard across the country.
"Once the police receive an inquiry or a complaint, there may be a number of levels before it becomes an official investigation," said Wright.
Chris Mathers, a former RCMP officer who is now a security consultant, said the police could be gathering evidence and reviewing public information before their work reaches the level of an official investigation, which he acknowledged can be a nebulous term.
"It's all semantics, really, but until the cops show up at your door, who knows what the hell is going on?" he said.
Semantics aside, there is no evidence to date the RCMP has begun investigating individuals in the PMO, which is what Scheer said was happening.
The only person to have gone on the record about having been contacted by the RCMP over how the Liberals handled SNC-Lavalin is Wilson-Raybould. She confirmed the RCMP contacted her about the issue in the spring.
Wilson-Raybould told the Globe and Mail Wednesday she had been interviewed by RCMP officers earlier this week and has had other telephone conversations with the police since Dion's report came out.
The timing of the spring contact with the RCMP also suggests no official investigation was underway.
The Conflict of Interest Act requires the federal ethics commissioner to immediately suspend his own examination if he learns the police have launched an investigation into the same issue, or if related charges have been laid.
The ethics commissioner must allow that process to run its course before he can resume his own probe.
That never happened, as Dion began his investigation the day after the Globe and Mail published its first story on the allegations and kept going until he published his report six months later.
It is clear that Scheer is trying to suggest that where there is smoke, there is fire.
Still, that does not mean it was accurate for him to say what he did with such certainty.
For those reasons, Scheer's assertion that the RCMP has started investigating people in the PMO contains "a lot of baloney" — it is mostly inaccurate, but contains an element of truth.
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Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press