HALIFAX, N.S. – Canada’s oldest provincial legislature was under a cloud of suspicion Tuesday as RCMP confirmed they’re investigating possible criminal wrongdoing by five Nova Scotia politicians, but exactly who they are is anyone’s guess.
Neither police nor the province’s auditor general would reveal the names of the four former members and one sitting member being investigated for possible illegal expense claims.
Instead, a brief two-page document from auditor general Jacques Lapointe to house Speaker Charlie Parker states that his investigation “on specific transactions by certain members” has been sent to the police.
At least one politician wasn’t happy with the lack of disclosure.
“This certainly adds, quite frankly, to the suspicion of every member in this house,” said Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil. “I would have preferred that the files that were being referred would have been put out there.
“Quite frankly, the auditor hasn’t said what (current) member it is, so how would anyone know?”
Premier Darrell Dexter said politicians will have to live with the fact that police have advised that names shouldn’t be released while the investigation is ongoing.
But he said he hopes investigators work quickly.
“I would obviously like to see the matter resolved as quickly and as expeditiously as possible for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that we have a government to run. … We need to get on with our job,” he said.
Dexter said that as far as he knows, no member of his caucus was implicated by the auditor general.
“I am confident that there is no one from the government caucus that is under investigation,” he said.
The expense scandal has been dominating the province’s political scene for months.
An initial audit by Lapointe revealed questionable purchases by all three political parties through constituency expense accounts, including big-screen TVs, an espresso machine, custom-built furniture, computers, digital cameras and even a video game.
Lapointe’s latest audit is a more specific examination of a group of legislature members, which he launched after receiving new information.
The political fallout is beginning to resemble what recently occurred in Newfoundland and Labrador, where that province’s auditor general released damning reports on overpayments to four politicians worth about $1 million. The findings led to criminal convictions.
McNeil said no one in his caucus had been informed if they are being investigated. Karen Casey, the Conservative leader, also said none of her sitting members had been informed.
Lapointe defended his decision during a news conference Tuesday, saying he’s received a legal opinion that it’s up to police to reveal names.
“We’re not lawyers or police so our job was to get a feel for whether there were, or whether not, any illegal acts committed,” he said. “As to what specific breach of the Criminal Code may have occurred, that is now up to the police to decide.”
Lapointe said his office felt it was “self-evident,” based on the information found in the investigation, that the acts under scrutiny weren’t legal.
The auditor began the deeper forensic investigation after a report in February highlighted a number of inappropriate purchases by members of all parties between July 2006 and June 2009.
It led to at least one resignation and caused the government to announce changes in the way expense accounts for members of the legislature are governed and how they are publicly reported.
Lapointe said the members who were investigated in his forensic audit weren’t directly informed by his office that their files were passed to police.
“I can’t say we specifically contacted each one of these people. They may or may not know,” he said.
Meanwhile, the RCMP said the investigation will be handled by its commercial crime section.
“Our goal is to determine any criminal activity,” said Sgt. Brigdit Leger. “As for the specifics, the RCMP will not be releasing that information as it is evidentiary at this point.”
Leger said names will only be released if charges are laid.
“This is going to be a complex multi-faceted investigation,” she said in an interview. “It will involve numerous stakeholders and these investigations generally take a significant amount of time.”
Two politicians have quit since Lapointe’s first audit, but it isn’t known whether they were part of the second forensic audit.
David Wilson, former Liberal member for Glace Bay, has never revealed his reason for stepping down. However, during the first audit it was revealed he spent money on patio furniture. Wilson has said he voluntarily repaid the $400 for the furniture last year.
McNeil has said that Wilson was asked by Lapointe to meet with him on Feb. 26, but declined.
Richard Hurlburt, former Conservative member for Yarmouth, also quit after being criticized for spending $8,000 on a generator that he installed at his own home, which he initially said was for the use of a nearby home for senior citizens. In his resignation letter, Hurlburt apologized “for this misstep” and repaid the money to the province.
Neither Wilson nor his lawyer returned calls Tuesday. Martin Pink, the lawyer for Hurlburt, also did not return calls.
Lapointe confirmed Monday that Trevor Zinck, an Independent member of the legislature for Dartmouth North, was one of the politicians included in the second audit, but he wouldn’t discuss details. It isn’t known whether his case was one of those referred to police for investigation.
The former New Democrat was added to the forensic audit after the Speaker of the house referred the matter to Lapointe’s office. Parker said the Zinck case was added to the second audit because of allegations that emerged from the NDP caucus in March over his handling of office expenses.
Zinck had little to say when approached at his constituency office Tuesday.
When asked by a reporter if he knows if he is being investigated by the RCMP, Zinck replied, “No I don’t,” then closed the door to his office.