Ethics report blasts Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, could affect chances of re-election

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and officials in his government improperly tried to influence a corporate legal case, Canada's top ethics watchdog said on Wednesday in a politically damaging assessment that could hurt his chances of winning an October election.

Trudeau's team attempted to circumvent, undermine and discredit a decision by federal prosecutors that construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc should face trial on corruption charges, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said in a scathing report.

Trudeau's office said the Prime Minister would react to the report later on Wednesday. While Dion's findings could have political implications, his judgment that Trudeau violated ethical standards carries no legal implications beyond a possible small fine.

The release of the report promised to reignite a scandal that initially flared in February. The affair marked the low point of Trudeau's almost four-year tenure and prompted the resignation of two high-profile female cabinet ministers, his closest personal aide and the head of the federal bureaucracy.

The case proved politically harmful and Trudeau's Liberals trailed the official opposition Conservatives for several months. Recent surveys, though, showed the centre-left Liberals edging in front of their right-leaning rivals ahead of the October federal election that will determine whether Trudeau stays in power.

SNC-Lavalin, a major employer in the politically important Canadian province of Quebec, wanted to take advantage of a 2018 law allowing it to escape with a fine.

Trudeau, who has said he fretted about potential job losses, has admitted he tried last year to persuade former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to reconsider the prosecutor's decision to press ahead with a trial but insisted he did nothing wrong.

Dion disagreed, finding that Trudeau had contravened conflict of interest rules forbidding public office holders from trying to improperly further another person's private interests.

"Trudeau used his position of authority over Wilson-Raybould to seek to influence her decision," Dion said.

"Because SNC‑Lavalin overwhelmingly stood to benefit from Wilson-Raybould's intervention, I have no doubt that the result of Trudeau's influence would have furthered SNC-Lavalin's interests. The actions that sought to further these interests were improper," he added.

Wilson-Raybould, of aboriginal descent, refused to overrule the prosecutor's decision and was demoted in a cabinet shuffle in January. She resigned the next month.

The scandal battered Trudeau's image as a youthful progressive at the helm of a government that had vowed to be open and transparent and, among other things, elevate the rights of women and aboriginal people.

"Justin Trudeau said he would be accountable and ethical. Instead, he used the power of his office to reward his supporters and punish his critics," Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said on Twitter.