12/05/2013 02:49 EST | Updated 02/04/2014 05:59 EST

Documents show Nova Scotia NDP bumped severance by $250,000 for departing staff

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's New Democrats were on the defensive Thursday because of government documents showing the cabinet of former premier Darrell Dexter bumped up severance by a total of $250,000 for departing political staff after October's election defeat.

The documents obtained from a government source say the total severance payout for the 14 staff members was about $850,000.

During question period Wednesday, Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil said the former government hid behind cabinet secrecy to make the payments to those who were on contract.

He was responding to opposition attacks over his appointment of a defeated Liberal candidate as the province's chief protocol officer on a year-to-year contract with an annual salary of $85,000.

Acting NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald said Thursday the intention of the severance change was to fix an oversight in the original contracts of staff members to reflect their years of service before working in the Premier's Office.

The documents say cabinet made the decision Oct. 15 — one week after the election — and gave members of the premier's staff additional severance equal to one month's pay for every year of their previous service at the party's caucus office on top of what they earned while working in government.

"The contract had failed to include the severance that should be paid based on prior service in other parts of the public sector," said MacDonald.

However, she said the top-ups were capped at 15 months in order to save money in the case of payouts for longer serving members of caucus, like former chief of staff Dan O'Connor who worked for more than 20 years.

"We adjusted for that, we capped it and those are the results you see," MacDonald said.

Under the payout, O'Connor was given an extra $24,287.38 topping out his severance at $173,051.94. Of the other most senior advisers in Dexter's office, communications director Shawn Fuller got a $48,000.03 increase, bringing his departure package to $105,979.24. Policy adviser Paul Black received $43,347.07 for a total severance of $109,031.06.

MacDonald cried foul over the release of the information saying it was the result of McNeil taking heat from the opposition over his appointment of Glennie Langille as chief protocol officer.

"The government, I think, quite skillfully think this is a way to deflect from their patronage appointment," she said.

But Economic Development Minister Michel Samson said the issue is about the NDP giving a sweeter deal to its staff after an election defeat. He said the departing government broke a democratic convention that it should stick to routine business only.

"While it may not be a legal convention it is a moral convention ... and they have clearly breached that in the generous severance they agreed to following their election defeat," said Samson.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the NDP top-up should be paid from party coffers to save taxpayers from footing the bill. He dismissed the move as simply wrong.

"It's like the Liberals with their patronage hiring," he said. "The only difference seems to be that the Liberals pay their people off at the beginning and the NDP pay off theirs at the end."

Meanwhile, the opposition kept up its attack in the house for a third day over Langille's hiring, with the NDP introducing a bill stipulating that the chief protocol officer be hired on merit and not for political purposes.

Outside the house, McNeil remained unapologetic about the hiring, telling reporters the issue wasn't resonating with the public.

"I can tell you I received five emails," he said. "I've answered more questions here from each of you than I have from anyone out on main street."