09/13/2011 04:00 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:22 EST

Former Nova Scotia Liberal pleads guilty to fraud in spending scandal

SYDNEY, N.S. - A one-time chairman of Nova Scotia's Liberal caucus was involved in a "scheme" where he falsified his legislature expense claims over several years, the Crown said Tuesday after Dave Wilson pleaded guilty for his role in the province's spending scandal.

Wilson, 55, sat silently in court and without expression after pleading guilty to charges of fraud, uttering forged documents and breach of trust. He is the first to be convicted in a scandal that crossed party lines and shook the foundations of Nova Scotia's political establishment.

He also didn't speak outside court, but his lawyer said Wilson will make a statement when he is sentenced on Jan. 25.

Wilson was charged earlier this year after a nine-month RCMP investigation into the constituency allowance spending of four provincial politicians.

He was charged with 31 counts of uttering forged documents and one count each of fraud and breach of trust. The Crown and defence agreed Tuesday to consolidate Wilson's 31 counts of uttering forged documents into a single charge.

Crown lawyer Andrew Macdonald said prosecutors believe Wilson's crimes spanned five years, beginning June 30, 2005, and lasting until June 30, 2010.

"We're alleging this was an ongoing scheme," Macdonald said outside provincial court.

"The scheme related to expense claims filed by Mr. Wilson which were false ... expenses he alleged were incurred as a member of the legislative assembly."

Macdonald said an agreed statement of facts to be presented at Wilson's sentencing hearing will shed more light on the nature and extent of his crimes. The prosecutor wouldn't comment on whether he will be seeking jail time or financial restitution, but said such offences are particularly serious when they're committed by people who commit to public life.

"It's a very serious offence," Macdonald said. "These are people we elect to look after the purse strings ... and we will be making that point to the trial judge."

Bill Burchell, one of Wilson's lawyers, said he agreed with Macdonald's description of the crimes as an "ongoing scheme." But he said his client has suffered severe financial losses, including the loss of his home, since his legal troubles began.

"He's contrite," Burchell said in a phone interview. "Much unlike most of the criminal defendants I represent, he's certainly remorseful. His life has been turned upside down."

The RCMP probe began after provincial auditor general Jacques Lapointe uncovered several cases last year of what he described as excessive and inappropriate spending of constituency funds.

Lapointe's February 2010 report ignited public outrage, revealing that thousands of dollars in public money had been spent on a range of items including power generators, TVs, custom-made furniture, laptops and cameras.

A month later, the former broadcaster resigned his seat in the Cape Breton district of Glace Bay without explanation, saying only he could no longer fulfil his duties.

The NDP government has since implemented reforms to the constituency allowance system, such as publicly posting politicians' expenses, in a bit to improve transparency.

Premier Darrell Dexter has also said the government would try to recover any money owed to taxpayers if any of the politicians charged in the scandal are found guilty.

Two other former members of the legislature -- including former Conservative cabinet minister Richard Hurlburt and ex-Liberal Russell MacKinnon -- and Trevor Zinck, who currently sits as an Independent, are also charged. They have not entered pleas.

The constituency expense scandal in Nova Scotia comes after one that erupted in Newfoundland and Labrador five years earlier. In that province, four politicians, a senior civil servant and a businessman were jailed.