A former provincial cabinet minister was convicted yesterday of leaving the scene of a car accident and has been expelled from his party.
Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald said that Ernie Fage showed a "serious lack of judgment" the night he caused an accident after drinking at a party near the Nova Scotia Legislature. He was suspended from the Conservative caucus after the incident and the expulsion is now permanent, the Premier said.
Mr. Fage maintained in his testimony that he was frightened by the other driver and another person who happened by during the late-night encounter. He said that he left because he was worried about his safety, but the explanation did not satisfy Provincial Court Judge Bill Digby.
"The court rejects Mr. Fage's evidence with respect to his reason for leaving the scene of the accident," Judge Digby said, reading his decision aloud. "... Mr. Fage left the scene of the accident with intent to escape criminal liability."
The judge noted that Mr. Fage did not summon police when the crash occurred and did not go to the police station after leaving the scene. Mr. Fage also approached one of the bystanders who had followed him to his underground parking garage, in spite of his own testimony that he was frightened by these bystanders.
The judge rejected the defence request for an absolute discharge and imposed an $800 fine, along with a 15-per-cent victim surcharge. He faces no restrictions on his driving.
Mr. Fage said he was "disappointed" but that he looks forward to continuing to serve his constituents. Within hours, though, Mr. MacDonald said that the former Progressive Conservative will remain out of the Tory caucus and will not be allowed to run for the party in the next election.
"The events leading up to the incident last November were largely the result of a serious lack of judgment on Mr. Fage's part," Mr. MacDonald said in a statement.
Mr. Fage has been sitting as what he called an Independent Tory, representing the riding of Cumberland North, although last night he was still included as an elected member on the website of the PC Party of Nova Scotia.
Judge Digby heard testimony that Mr. Fage had been drinking at a downtown pub in late November of 2006, part of a traditional party to mark the start of the legislature's Christmas break.
One witness said that Mr. Fage, then a cabinet minister, was repeating himself by the end of the evening and was having trouble speaking. The driver of the car that Mr. Fage hit with his government-leased vehicle testified that the politician "reeked" of alcohol and appeared "hammered."
Mr. Fage testified that he had consumed three glasses of wine over the course of the evening and felt fine to drive when his taxi did not come. Since police had not arrived by the time Mr. Fage left the scene, his blood-alcohol content could not be tested.
It is impossible to know what his level of impairment was, prosecutor Darrell Martin said last month, on the final day of proceedings, but noted the perception of others.
"The liquor is a huge factor here, the fact that he [was]a cabinet minister is a huge factor here," Mr. Martin said. "He wanted to get out of there without facing the police. And part of that was not giving his name and address so they couldn't find him."
Andrew Murie, CEO of MADD Canada, said that fleeing accidents is a very common way for drunk drivers to try to evade criminal penalty.
"The only reason drunk drivers get caught is that they stay at the scene," Mr. Murie said in a telephone interview. "Once they leave the scene they're free."
He called for "very severe" penalties for leaving the scene and also for mandatory breath testing at accidents. Depending on how the latter law was drafted, those who leave the scene could be presumed to be trying to evade the breath test, and punished accordingly.