At the time Zita Astravas was the crisis manager in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman arguably was thecrisis, or one of them anyway.
Yet Astravas, who testified Thursday at a pre-trial hearing in Norman’s breach of trust case, struggled to remember the names of her own staff or her interactions with two other key members in Trudeau’s office, principal secretary Gerald Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford.
“Did you also deal with Ms. Telford?” defence lawyer Marie Henein asked.
“I would deal with all persons on a senior level,” Astravas replied.
“But with Telford?” Henein asked.
“I don’t recall specifically,” said Astravas.
“Mr. Butts?” the lawyer asked.
“I don’t recall specifically,” Astravas said.
She was the “issues manager,” which she agreed meant she was responsible for crisis management, from November of 2015, just after the Trudeau government took office, until November of 2017, well after Norman was suspended as the No. 2 in the entire Canadian Forces.
The then-new government was wanting to take a second look at a sole-source contract the previous Stephen Harper government had signed with the Chantier Davie shipyard in Quebec for a desperately needed supply ship for the navy.
The Trudeau government eventually proceeded with the contract, but only after news reports that a cancellation would cost taxpayers $89 million.
It is to one of those reporters, from the CBC, and to an acquaintance at Chantier Davie that Norman is accused of leaking confidential information. He is charged with a single count of breach of trust.
Norman was temporarily suspended as Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (VCDS) in January of 2017, but wasn’t charged by the RCMP until March of 2018.
Astravas’s poor memory for a period hardly lost in the mists of time — her most frequent response was easily “I don’t recall” — was remarkable.
She now works as chief of staff for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
And it is Sajjan’s department, the Department of National Defence or DND, which Norman’s lawyers suggested may have attempted to obstruct justice.
While making submissions, lawyer Christine Mainville told Ontario Court Judge Heather Perkins-McVey that testimony given earlier this week by Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Jon Vance means that “an attempt to obstruct (justice) within DND is now in play.”
Vance came to court Wednesday with four banker’s boxes full of documents in response to a personal subpoena dated Dec. 18 of last year.
But he testified that in response to an earlier defence subpoena served upon the department in October — it sought disclosure of all records, emails, text or BlackBerry messages in which the Norman matter was discussed — he didn’t search his personal phone or email address.
Similarly, when Astravas was asked the same questions on Thursday, she too replied that she had never searched her personal phone or email for communications about Norman on the advice of DND.
She said she was “not certain” who in the department had advised her.
Yet justice lawyer Rob MacKinnon confirmed for the judge Thursday that when he gave advice to DND last December, “I made it clear the searches were to include” personal emails and phones.
Vance’s boxes of documents will be soon handed over to the judge in a secure form.
Before her now, on a secure laptop, are about 6,300 government documents, none from DND.
Justice lawyers are in the process of reviewing another 13,000 records.
These documents are a mix of those that ought to have been disclosed by prosecutors to the defence in the normal course — such things as notes a witness interviewed by the RCMP may have relied upon — and those which may be protected and thus redacted.
Disclosure of some of those records in the first category, Perkins-McVey remarked Thursday, “should have been done years ago. Why it wasn’t (done) is baffling.”
As Henein told the judge, that prosecutors hadn’t been curious enough “to read the notes” of their own witnesses was galling.
She told Perkins-McVey that prosecutors seem to define their established duty to disclose evidence “by what the Crown wants to ask” and have been taking what she called “a startlingly narrow view of relevance and disclosure.”
Lead prosecutor Barbara Mercier told the judge that the Crown believes very little of what’s in Vance’s boxes are relevant. She described the past week as “a very large fishing expedition” by the defence that “could go on and on til kingdom come.”
The judge’s task is to first determine whether a document is relevant.
Those records she deems relevant she then must examine to see if the contents breach solicitor-client privilege, litigation privilege or public interest immunity.