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Crown stays charge against federal public servant in echo of Mark Norman case

Matthew Matchett, a federal public servant charged with one count of breach of trust for allegedly leaking secret cabinet documents about a contract between the federal government and Chantier Davie shipyard, leaves the Ottawa courthouse during a break in his trial on Monday, June 6, 2022. The Crown is dropping its case against a federal bureaucrat accused of leaking secret cabinet documents about a $700-million shipbuilding contract. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

OTTAWA — The failed prosecution of vice-admiral Mark Norman loomed large on Thursday as a second federal official accused of leaking cabinet secrets about a $700-million shipbuilding contract walked out of an Ottawa courthouse a free man.

More than three years after RCMP charged him with breach of trust, the Crown announced it was dropping its case against former Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency employee Matthew Matchett.

Justice Hugh McLean conveyed the Crown’s decision to the 12-member jury shortly after they sat down for what was supposed to be the fourth day of a four-week trial whose origins could be traced back to a fateful few days in late 2015.

“The Crown has reassessed their position and they are asking for a stay on the basis that they don't think there's a real possibility of you finding the accused guilty,” McLean said before Matchett was allowed to leave.

The surprise development echoed the final moments of the Norman case, in which Crown prosecutors concluded that they had no reasonable chance of securing a conviction of the military’s former second-in-command.

Both men had been accused of leaking cabinet secrets about the newly elected Trudeau government’s decision in November 2015 to review a contract with Quebec shipyard Chantier Davie that had been negotiated by the Harper government.

The deal involved Davie leasing a converted civilian ship to the navy as a supply vessel for five years, with an option for an additional five years. The Liberals eventually approved the contract and the MV Asterix was delivered in January 2018. 

Unlike in Norman’s case, however — when the Crown cited new evidence presented by the admiral’s defence team for its decision — the prosecution’s case against Matchett fell apart with its first witness.

Longtime lobbyist Brian Mersereau had testified that he received a package of documents after speaking with Matchett in November 2015 about the Liberals’ plan to review the contract with Davie.

But the chairman of Hill+Knowlton Strategies repeatedly told the court that he could not remember Matchett providing him with a secret memo to cabinet about the deal.

That failure to conclusively link Matchett to the secret memo proved lethal to the Crown’s case.

Standing with his lawyer outside the courthouse after the decision, a visibly relieved Matchett thanked his defence team as well as family and friends for their support over the years.

“I’m very, very thankful,” said Matchett, who was suspended from the federal procurement department, his most recent government employer, in October 2018. “It's really hard to understand (after) almost a decade, and I couldn't be happier, and I'm happy that things are going forward.”

Defence lawyer Michael Johnston said he was long confident that once the truth came out, the Crown’s case would collapse and his client would be exonerated.

“Whatever he may have done was done without any nefarious or skulduggery purpose,” Johnston said Thursday.

“His interest was ensuring the information was available so decision-makers could fully appreciate what impact this contract would have for Atlantic Canadian jobs. So we were certain, given that truth, that sooner or later the Crown’s forensic battleship would be sunk.”

The collapse of the Crown’s case against Matchett came more than three years after Norman walked out of the same Ottawa courthouse in May 2019 after the breach-of-trust charge against him was stayed.

That high-profile Norman case generated political and media interest for years, starting with then-defence chief Jonathan Vance’s startling decision in January 2017 to suspend the former navy commander as the military’s second-in-command. He was charged in March 2018.

Norman’s pretrial hearings were covered by a gauntlet of reporters and saw the admiral’s lawyer, Marie Henein, as well as the official Opposition Conservatives repeatedly accuse Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers of having politically interfered in the case.

RCMP investigators had previously indicated in court filings that they believed two government officials, acting independently of each other, had leaked government secrets in November 2015.

Matchett’s name eventually emerged in court filings from Norman’s team in October 2018, by which point he had moved from ACOA to Public Services and Procurement Canada. Two days later, he was suspended without pay.

The RCMP charged him with one count of breach of trust in February 2019. 

The collapse of the Crown’s case against Norman, which cost more than $1.4 million, prompted questions at the time about the RCMP’s investigation.

The Mounties insisted their work on the Norman file was thorough, independent and highly professional. But the case’s demise followed a similar failure to convict then-senator Mike Duffy on fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges.

The force pointed instead to successes on other high-profile, sensitive investigations — from the conviction of former Stephen Harper aide Bruce Carson for influence peddling to the imprisonment of a Royal Canadian Mint worker for stealing $190,000 worth of gold.

Following the failed prosecution, Norman said he wanted to return to duty. But he and the government instead reached a financial settlement, the details of which have not been made public, before the vice-admiral retired last year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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