A former Conservative cabinet minister in Nova Scotia has pleaded guilty to fraud and breach of trust, marking the second time a former provincial politician has admitted to defrauding the public purse since a spending scandal erupted more than two years ago.
Richard Hurlburt formally entered his plea Thursday in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Yarmouth, the largest community in his former riding.
Outside the courtroom, Mr. Hurlburt issued a public apology before a row of television cameras.
“Today, I entered a guilty plea to the charges and I take full responsibility for my actions,” he said.
“I also want to apologize to my wife, my family, my friends and I thank them for their continued love and support. I want to apologize to the constituents of Yarmouth for any hardship that has been put on the constituency of Yarmouth and all of Nova Scotians.”
Mr. Hurlburt, who served in cabinet when John Hamm was premier, is one of four Nova Scotia politicians charged in February 2011 after the province's auditor general asked the RCMP to investigate allegations of inappropriate use of constituency allowances.
Two months ago, Mr. Hurlburt's lawyer said his client wanted to take responsibility for his actions before his former constituents.
On Thursday, Crown lawyer Andrew Macdonald said outside the courtroom that Mr. Hurlburt's actions related to the submission of claims for expenses he didn't incur, but the prosecutor didn't elaborate.
He said a statement of facts will be presented at a sentencing hearing in Yarmouth on July 5.
In all, Mr. Hurlburt faced five charges, but three charges of uttering forged documents were withdrawn.
“He understands the nature and consequences of his pleas,” Mr. Macdonald told the court. “He is tendering his pleas voluntarily.
First elected in 1999, Mr. Hurlburt was re-elected in 2003 and 2006 and served as the natural resources and energy minister.
The scandal erupted in February 2010 after provincial auditor general Jacques Lapointe released a bombshell report that revealed what he described as excessive and inappropriate spending of constituency funds between July 2006 to June 2009.
Mr. Lapointe's report found that members of the legislature used public funds to pay for a range of items and services, including cameras, computers, extensive office renovations, custom-made furniture, a model boat and an espresso maker.
Mr. Hurlburt quit politics soon after the report was released. Mr. Lapointe found Mr. Hurlburt spent $7,995 in public money on a generator installed in his home.
The politician initially defended the purchase as a valid expense, saying it could be used in emergencies by a nearby seniors' home and for ground search and rescue teams. He later apologized and said he had reimbursed taxpayers.
The Speaker's Office also released a list of questionable expenses that same month that showed Mr. Hurlburt also charged taxpayers $2,499 for a 40-inch television and $579 for installing it.
Mr. Lapointe conducted a subsequent forensic audit, the findings of which prompted a nine-month RCMP investigation and a string of charges against Mr. Hurlburt and three other men.
The scandal initially cast a cloud over the legislature, but it appears to have little long-term impact on the majority NDP government led by Premier Darrell Dexter since June of 2009.
In March 2010, Mr. Dexter announced a series of reforms, including new rules making the legislature's internal economy board more transparent and accountable.
As well, all members of the legislature must now make sure all expense claims are accompanied by receipts, copies of which are posted online.
Last September, former Liberal Dave Wilson pleaded guilty to uttering forged documents and one count each of fraud over $5,000 and breach of trust. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for next Thursday for Wilson, who used to represent the Cape Breton riding of Glace Bay.
Court heard the former caucus chairman was involved in a scheme that involved falsifying legislature expense claims over five years, beginning June 30, 2005.
Russell MacKinnon, a former Liberal cabinet minister charged with fraud, breach of trust and uttering forged documents, is to return to court later this month for a pre-trial conference and to set a date for his judge-only trial.
Mr. MacKinnon, who once represented Cape Breton West, faces 10 charges, one each of fraud over $5,000 and breach of trust by a public official, while the remaining eight counts are related to uttering forged documents.
A preliminary hearing is set to begin June 11 for Trevor Zinck, a former NDP member who now sits as an Independent. He faces charges of fraud over $5,000, breach of trust and two counts of theft over $5,000.
Follow us on Twitter: