POLITICS

Nova Scotia politician pleads guilty to fraud in constituency expense scandal

06/17/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 08/16/2013 05:12 EDT
HALIFAX - An Independent politician in the Nova Scotia legislature pleaded guilty Monday to fraud and breach of trust, but said outside court he would like to keep his job as a lawmaker.

Trevor Zinck entered the pleas on the fifth day of his trial at Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Halifax, becoming the last of four politicians to plead guilty to offences stemming from the province's spending scandal that erupted two years ago.

Prosecutors said a charge of theft over $5,000 was stayed.

Zinck said outside court he admits he made errors with his expenses, but wants to remain a member of the legislature for Dartmouth North.

"I would like to continue on," he said. "There's no question I made some mistakes, but it doesn't take away from all the good I was able to do."

Zinck said he doesn't believe he has to quit, but he is nonetheless holding talks with the Speaker's Office and realizes the legislature could expel him.

"Other politicians have made mistakes. They were afforded opportunity to pay back and to move on. Unfortunately, I was thrown into a forensic audit," he said outside court.

During the trial, prosecution witnesses testified that organizations that were supposed to receive donations through Zinck's office never received their cheques.

Last week, Zinck confirmed in court he was given more than $10,000 from the Speaker's Office to cover constituency expenses in 2008 and 2009, even though he didn't pay those owed money, except for a partial amount to one group.

Crown attorneys said outside court on Monday that the total has dropped to about $9,000 because the Crown is now accepting Zinck's explanations in two instances.

About half the money was supposed to go to the Boys and Girls Club of Dartmouth. Other duplicate cheques — used as receipts in Zinck's expense claims — were made out to the Dartmouth District 9 Citizens Association, Lake City Woodworkers and a Dartmouth dad looking for a hockey sponsorship for his son.

The father, James Moore, testified that his son couldn't play in a spring hockey league because Zinck failed to come through on a promise to provide an $860 sponsorship.

In court, Crown prosecutor Mark Heerema showed Moore a duplicate cheque for $860 that Zinck had made out to Moore. The document was attached to a March 2008 expense claim filed by Zinck and approved for reimbursement by the Speaker's Office. Moore said he had never seen the cheque before and he confirmed that Zinck gave him no money in 2008.

As well, bank records presented as evidence during the trial showed a series of late-night withdrawals made from Zinck's personal and constituency accounts — all of them made in 2008 from automated bank machines inside Casino Nova Scotia in Halifax.

Outside court, Zinck said he will wait until a sentencing hearing on Aug. 7 to provide more complete explanations for what happened to the funds.

However, Zinck — who was first elected as an NDP member in 2006 and re-elected in 2009 — said he was facing some financial difficulties during the time of the offences between June 2007 and July 2009.

"Unfortunately, due to a number of issues and overextending myself, I found myself ... in a situation that led to this point. For that I'm very remorseful," he said.

Zinck said he acknowledges he will forfeit his pension as a result of recent amendments passed by the legislature.

He said he expects to receive a reimbursement of his pension contributions of between $55,000 and $65,000. Zinck said he will use those funds to repay any money he's ordered to give back as a result of the court proceedings.

"If I owe somebody money, I will pay it back," he said.

Crown prosecutor Andrew Macdonald said outside court that he is likely to seek jail time for Zinck because he involved non-profit and charitable groups in his fraud.

"This is a matter where he misappropriated funds that were earmarked for ... very worthy charitable organizations and individuals," he said.

Defence lawyer Lyle Howe said he will argue against a jail sentence, adding Zinck's conduct wasn't serious enough to warrant incarceration.

Zinck was one of four politicians charged in February 2011 following an investigation by the province's auditor general into constituency allowance spending.

The former NDP caucus member is the only one who now sits in the legislature.

Richard Hurlburt, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, pleaded guilty in April 2012 to fraud and breach of trust for taking $25,321 between December 2006 and December 2008. He was sentenced to a year of house arrest.

David Wilson, a former chairman of the Liberal caucus, pleaded guilty to fraud, uttering forged documents and breach of trust in September 2011 in crimes that spread over five years. He was sentenced to nine months in jail and was released from custody after four months.

Russell MacKinnon, a former Liberal, pleaded guilty on April 12 to breach of trust, while one count of fraud and eight counts of uttering forged documents were withdrawn.

Like Zinck, MacKinnon changed his plea while his trial was underway. MacKinnon was sentenced to four months of house arrest, and four months of curfew.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the charge of theft over $5,000 was dropped.