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Halifax Newsmaker of the Year

Eleven months after exposing the biggest political scandal for Nova Scotia in recent memory, Auditor General Jacques Lapointe is still somewhat mystified by the fallout.

Eleven months after exposing the biggest political scandal for Nova Scotia in recent memory, Auditor General Jacques Lapointe is still somewhat mystified by the fallout.

“I didn’t know where this was going and I kept expecting it to wind down. And it didn’t,” said the author of the report that became known as the MLA expense scandal.

That report resulted in the resignation of two sitting MLAs, Richard Hurlburt and Dave Wilson, contributed to the ejection of Trevor Zinck from government caucus and put egg on the face of numerous provincial politicians, past and present.

It blew open the doors of the government’s secretive Internal Economy Board, which held its first public meeting a month after Lapointe released his office’s findings.

It sparked widespread public outrage and led to RCMP investigations into five politicians, the results of which are still pending.

Ultimately, it forced reform on a broken system where politicians policed their own behind closed doors.

Reflecting on the report nearly a year later, Lapointe said that when his staff started turning up many more questionable instances than he anticipated, he knew they were on to something big.

“We started to realize that we weren’t sure how to report these things … Some of these things were clearly wrong. But in what way? How was it wrong? Morally wrong, or was it just against the rules? Was it just our opinion?”

If it was just an opinion, it was one shared by many Nova Scotians. People were shocked to read reports of politicians expensing high-end tech equipment, custom furniture, a Dance Dance Revolution video game and, of course, $8,000 to install a generator.

“We finally decided that the best way to report these, aside from giving our opinion, was simply to report what was there. Right or wrong,” he said. “We felt people needed to know how (the money) was being spent.”

Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, said Lapointe’s office forced politicians to modernize the way they handled public money.

“(Lapointe) played a significant role ... in shoving Nova Scotia politics from the 19th century to the 21st century,” said Urbaniak. “There was a collective outrage ... driven in part by the fact that the concerns were so tangible. Everyone could relate to the instances that were mentioned and could identify the inappropriateness of the instances that were mentioned.”

Lapointe said that the public backlash is understandable but that it may have obscured other findings in his report, such as $830 million tied up in P3 contracts for schools — money he says wasn’t being managed very well.

“(The expenses) were small dollars, but it was probably more an issue of public trust. P3 schools were an issue of long-term management of large amounts of money and the quality of our schools. But this is an issue of public trust, and that’s a different kind of significance.”

Nevertheless, Lapointe says the sustained media coverage contributed to an increased awareness of the Office of the Auditor General and the crucial watchdog role it plays.

“The more the public knows what we’re doing, to my mind, the better.”

 
 
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