Bureaucrat on trail for leaking details of $700M shipbuilding deal puts forward defence
By Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian PressGeneral Defense
Legal defence team raises prospect of multiple leaks of secret cabinet deliberations in 2015.
OTTAWA – The prospect of more than one leak about secret cabinet deliberations in late 2015 around a $700-million shipbuilding deal was raised on Wednesday, as a longtime lobbyist testified he did not know the origins of certain information about the meeting.
Brian Mersereau told a court that federal public servant Matthew Matchett did not provide details about the ad hoc cabinet committee meeting on Nov. 19, 2015. The details were referenced the following day in a CBC article.
The chairman of lobbying firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies also testified that he did not know the origins of information about the meeting referenced in emails sent by senior officials from Quebec shipyard Chantier Davie around the same time.
“You have to remember Davie was dealing directly with senior bureaucrats running the program, hourly or daily or whatever you want to call it,” Mersereau said under questioning by defence lawyer Michael Johnston.
“`They were trying to hammer out the deal. So under normal circumstances, there would have been all kinds of conversations going on. And one would expect those conversations to go on.’
The testimony came on the third day of Matchett’s breach of trust trial, in which the employee at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency is accused of having illegally leaked cabinet secrets about the deal.
Matchett has pleaded not guilty and his trial, which started on Monday, is expected to run four weeks.
The leak is alleged to have occurred in November 2015, when the newly elected Liberal government decided to hold off finalizing a contract with Davie to lease a temporary supply ship for the navy, the MV Asterix.
The Liberals later approved the deal, which has seen the government lease the Asterix from Davie since January 2018 while the Royal Canadian Navy waits for two permanent new support vessels to be built by Seaspan Shipyards in Vancouver.
Mersereau previously testified that he received an envelope containing a draft letter to cabinet and a PowerPoint presentation about the Asterix marked: “Confidence of the Queen’s Privy Council.”
Emails between Mersereau and Matchett filed in court as evidence also include one sent from Matchett’s email address to the lobbyist saying: “I’ve got everything, the motherlode.”
Yet while Mersereau testified he later met with CBC journalist James Cudmore to discuss a story about “another shipbuilding saga,” he said details in the resulting article about the Liberals’ closed-door talks did not come from him.
Those include the actual decision to delay the deal with Davie pending a review, and specific concerns raised with ministers during the meeting about the navy’s desperate need for a supply ship after its previous two were retired.
“Mr. Cudmore’s article seems to be citing sources that aren’t you or information that you had,” Johnston said. “Well, there’s certainly information in there that he did not get from me,” Mersereau replied.
Mersereau also said he did not know the source of information about the meeting mentioned in emails sent by Davie officials, including one from senior vice-president John Schmidt revealing the cabinet committee’s decision to pause the deal.
“So is it fair to say that ultimately, the documents that you receive (from Matchett) contained very little relevant information that we didn’t already know?” Johnston asked.
“By and large, yes,” Mersereau said, adding his focus was on whether the contract negotiated and finalized by the Harper government in the weeks before the 2015 federal election was going to be challenged by the newly elected Liberals.
Johnston at one point asked whether Mersereau knew if Davie was receiving information from another person, whom the defence lawyer identified by name, but the lobbyist said the name didn’t mean anything to him.
Johnston noted that Matchett, whom he described as “an Indigenous guy from New Brunswick (who) cared very deeply about the welfare and the benefit of Atlantic Canada,” was in Moncton when the cabinet committee meeting was actually held.
Matchett’s trial is scheduled to continue Thursday with the Crown expected to call its second witness.