Bureaucrat tried to undercut cabinet’s powers with shipbuilding project leak: Crown

OTTAWA — A federal public servant was accused Tuesday of trying to undercut cabinet's decision-making powers by intentionally leaking sensitive documents about a $700-million shipbuilding project.

Crown prosecutor Mark Covan levelled the accusation during opening arguments in the breach of trust trial for Matthew Matchett, who is an analyst with the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

“Cabinet is composed of ministers who are elected representatives. They make decisions. Oftentimes they are among the most significant decisions that our government makes, and they are accountable to Parliament for those decisions,” Covan told jury members in an Ottawa courtroom.

“This case is about that decision-making process. This case is about the Crown's allegations that Mr. Matchett attempted to corrupt, influence or exercise partiality in relation to that decision-making process. It was not his decision. This decision belonged to cabinet.”

Matchett was charged with one count of breach of trust in February 2019. 

He has pleaded not guilty.

The trial, which began Monday, is scheduled to run for four weeks.

The shipbuilding project in question related to a deal negotiated by the Harper government in 2015 for Quebec shipyard Chantier Davie to lease a converted civilian vessel to the government to act as a temporary supply vessel for the Royal Canadian Navy.

The Crown’s first witness, longtime lobbyist Brian Mersereau, was representing Davie at the time. He testified on Tuesday that the deal was for all intents and purposes finalized before the Harper Conservatives were ousted by the Trudeau Liberals in October 2015.

That’s why Mersereau and his client were surprised and concerned to learn the Liberals were planning to discuss the project at a secret cabinet committee meeting that November.

“It wasn't obvious as to why the new government had to take this and put it back, in essence, to a new cabinet,” Mersereau said. Asked by Covan about the potential consequences, Mersereau said: “The obvious one: they could be cancelled (or) delayed.”

Those concerns were particularly pronounced given what Mersereau said was a looming deadline at the end of the month for the deal to be officially approved by the government or Davie would lose access to the vessel, which was owned at the time by a European firm.

Dressed in a green checkered shirt and brown coat and moving slowly due to what he said was a recent car accident, Mersereau, who currently serves as chairman of Hill+Knowlton Strategies and still represents Davie, said he could not recall exactly how he met Matchett.

However, the veteran lobbyist testified that he had been in semi-regular contact with the public servant and reached out around that time to try to find out what was happening with the shipbuilding project, which the Liberals later approved.

The government has been leasing the Asterix from Davie since January 2018 while the navy waits for two permanent new support vessels to be built by Seaspan Shipyards in Vancouver.

The five-year leasing arrangement is set to expire next year, though the government has an option to extend it another five years or buy the vessel. The first permanent support ship was supposed to be delivered in 2023, but that schedule is now up in the air.

Court heard that shortly after Mersereau spoke with Matchett, a plain brown envelope containing several documents was delivered to his office.

Emails between Mersereau and Matchett were also filed in court as evidence, including one sent from Matchett’s email address to the lobbyist saying: “I’ve got everything, the motherlode.”

Mersereau initially told the court that he could not recall which documents were in the envelope, aside from a draft letter to federal cabinet about the Davie deal and some other unclassified material about the government’s broader shipbuilding procurement plan.

He later said the documents included a PowerPoint presentation about the Asterix marked: “Confidence of the Queen’s Privy Council,” which is how the government designates documents as cabinet secrets.

However, Mersereau was insistent under questioning that he could not remember having been given a draft memorandum to cabinet about the ship and deal.

Mersereau did tell the court that he tried to use the information that he was given to try to get media outlets, including the CBC, to write a story about “one more shipbuilding saga.”

Asked who sent the information, Mersereau said: “I suspected it was Mr. Matchett because I was speaking with nobody else who would send it to me out of the blue.”

Under cross-examination by defence lawyer Michael Johnston, Mersereau said the federal government would have been on the hook for millions of dollars in costs had the Liberals not approved the deal by Nov. 30, 2015.

He also agreed with Johnston’s assertion that the deal was important for the navy, which was without a support ship at the time following the early retirement of its two existing such vessels, as well as Davie and various marine industry firms in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Johnston’s cross-examination will continue on Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press