05/13/2014 01:19 EDT | Updated 07/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Civil servant acquitted of obstruction of justice in New Brunswick

FREDERICTON - A New Brunswick civil servant was simply looking for information and not interfering with an investigation when he asked whether an aquaculture infraction charge against the brother of the province's deputy premier could be withdrawn, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Peter Andrews, the director of corporate services for the province's Aquaculture Department, was acquitted of one count of obstruction of justice after he was accused of trying to have a charge against Donat Robichaud removed in December 2011.

Provincial court Judge Julian Dickson said he accepted Andrews' testimony that he was just looking for information when he asked an employee to ask a Crown prosecutor if a charge against Robichaud could be withdrawn.

"As a layman, he was merely seeking information with respect to the judicial process," Dickson said.

Outside the Fredericton court, Andrews said he was relieved by the judge's ruling.

"I've been with the provincial government for 35 years and never did I expect to find myself in a situation like this," Andrews said.

"The last 15 months since being charged last February has been very difficult for myself and my wife and my kids."

During the judge-only trial, the court heard testimony from witnesses who said Robichaud was repeatedly in and out of compliance with the lease for his oyster growing operation in northern New Brunswick because his equipment was often too close to shore.

The Crown approved laying a charge against him on Nov. 16, 2011. But it was standard practice to notify the fisheries minister of any charges, so Wilbert Sabine, the head of aquaculture enforcement, told fisheries officer Gaetan Germain to hold off laying the charge until he gave the OK to proceed, court heard.

Andrews testified that senior department officials decided to explore different options, such as revoking Robichaud's lease or licence. Andrews said Fisheries Minister Michael Olscamp informed deputy premier Paul Robichaud of the status of Donat Robichaud's case during a meeting later that same day.

Andrews said he told Sabine the next day that he was to hold off on a charge while the department considered other options.

At trial, Crown prosecutor Mona Briere quoted from an email Sabine sent to his fisheries officers that same day in which he told them that Olscamp met with Paul Robichaud and "it didn't go well for us."

"The charges are not to be pursued _ i.e. dropped," Briere read from the email.

Defence lawyer Patrick Hurley said that email was based on conjecture by Sabine.

Despite the directive to hold off on a charge, Germain proceeded laying it on Dec. 12, 2011.

Andrews testified that he then asked Sabine to call the Crown to see if the charge could be withdrawn because he needed the answer before informing the deputy minister of the charge.

In his ruling, Dickson said some of the witnesses had improperly come to a conclusion that there was political interference that was not supported by the evidence.

"It was a regrettable error with extremely serious and unfortunate consequences for the accused," Dickson said.

Briere said Tuesday she respects the judge's decision.

Donat Robichaud was eventually charged and pleaded guilty to practising aquaculture outside the boundary of his lease. He paid a fine of $576.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Andrews was alleged to have tried to get a charge against Donat Robichaud withdrawn in November 2011.