Vice-Admiral Mark Norman takes part in a news conference in Ottawa
By Steve Scherer
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian prosecutors on Wednesday dropped charges against a navy admiral accused of leaking confidential information, ending a politically sensitive case that had become a headache for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Vice Admiral Mark Norman, then the second-highest ranking figure in the armed forces, had been accused of giving a reporter details in 2015 about a near C$700 million ($520 million) contract to buy a container ship and convert it into a much-needed supply vessel.
Norman denied the charge and his lawyers complained the government was refusing to hand over thousands of documents they said were crucial to the case.
The trial had been due to begin this August, just before the start of Trudeau's campaign for re-election in October. The charge was dropped after the defense provided new information to the prosecutors, who determined the trial could not be won.
"It's over," lead prosecutor Barbara Mercier told reporters, declining to give further details.
"We decided alone - no political interference whatsoever - that we couldn't make the charge," Mercier said.
The federal prosecution service in Canada is supposed to be entirely independent of the government.
The question of political interference is a sensitive one for Trudeau's Liberals, who are trailing their Conservative Party rivals in opinion polls in part because of a scandal involving allegations of meddling by government officials in a corporate corruption case.
Prosecutors initially said Norman had leaked details of a cabinet meeting in November 2015 when the Liberals, who had just taken power, discussed freezing a contract to acquire a much-needed supply ship. The contract had been awarded by the former Conservative government.
Such a move would have entailed delays and after the leak, the government stuck to the initial plan and the vessel was delivered on time.
"The alarming and protracted bias of perceived guilt across the senior levels of government has been quite damaging," said Norman, who was suspended and removed from his post as vice chief of the defense staff.
Trudeau did not comment directly, but noted public prosecutions are "entirely independent of my office". Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government would cover Norman's legal costs.
While the court proceedings appear to be over, the Conservatives signaled they would continue to press the case.
"We will use every tool in our tool box to get to the bottom of the matter," said Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by David Ljunggren and Grant McCool)