03/15/2013 09:06 EDT | Updated 05/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Former Nova Scotia cabinet minister apologizes, pleads guilty in scandal

HALIFAX - A former Nova Scotia cabinet minister who admitted to submitting nearly $11,000 in false expense claims apologized Friday for taking up the court's time after he unexpectedly pleaded guilty in the province's spending scandal.

Russell MacKinnon was expected to resume testimony Friday morning on the fourth day of his trial, but the case was temporarily adjourned at the request of defence lawyer Joel Pink.

Before the case resumed, MacKinnon signed a one-page, handwritten agreed statement of facts in which he pleaded guilty to breach of trust by a public officer.

"I would like to thank the court for its indulgence in these matters," MacKinnon, 59, told the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Halifax. "I would like to apologize for allowing the matter to come this far."

One count of fraud over $5,000 and eight counts of uttering forged documents were withdrawn.

MacKinnon was sentenced to an eight-month conditional sentence to be served in the community followed by a year of probation. The conditional sentence includes four months of house arrest and a four-month curfew.

Judge Felix Cacchione told the former Liberal politician it was "unfortunate and tragic" that someone of his stature would have a criminal record.

"I hope this sends a message to others in a position of trust that they can't abuse that trust and hope to get away with it," Cacchione said.

Outside court, MacKinnon declined comment and at one point admonished reporters for their repeated attempts to question him.

"How rude can you be?" he said. "Mr. Pink is going to answer all the questions and I think you should at least respect that."

Pink said he decided to seek the plea bargain after reflecting on how the trial was proceeding and following a telephone conversation with the Crown and MacKinnon's wife, NDP legislature member Michelle Raymond.

"You watch your client, you watch the body language of the judge and you try to make a determination as to how the judge is reacting to the evidence," Pink said outside court. "It was based on all of that I decided it was time to start talking."

Crown attorney Andrew Macdonald said he was satisfied with the plea deal because of certain strengths and weaknesses in the case, although he didn't specify what they were.

"A plea to a single count of breach of trust by a public official was warranted and reflected the most serious conduct we alleged was committed by Mr. MacKinnon," Macdonald said.

According to the agreed statement of facts, MacKinnon submitted three receipts to the provincial government seeking a reimbursement of $3,400 for Nicole Campbell, his constituency office secretary. But he did not pay her the money and instead gave her his 1995 Chrysler Intrepid, the statement says.

He also submitted a receipt for $7,500 for work done by George MacKeigan, his executive assistant. MacKeigan did not carry out the work nor receive that money, but MacKinnon was reimbursed, the statement says.

Both Campbell and MacKeigan had testified they became aware something was amiss in 2010, when they received tax forms claiming they owed the provincial government for income they did not claim four years earlier.

MacKinnon was first elected to the provincial legislature in 1988 to represent the riding of Cape Breton West and later became labour minister before quitting politics in 2006.

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

Former Liberal Dave Wilson served four months in jail last year after admitting to defrauding the public purse of nearly $61,000.

Richard Hurlburt, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, was sentenced to a year of house arrest after pleading guilty to charges of fraud and breach of trust.

Independent member Trevor Zinck is charged with theft over $5,000, fraud over $5,000 and breach of trust. His trial is scheduled to start in June.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Russell MacKinnon pleaded guilty to fraud and was sentenced to four months of house arrest in addition to an eight-month conditional sentence.

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