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Expense scandal dogs Nova Scotia's fading NDP government

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HALIFAX -- As the lone independent member of the Nova Scotia legislature, Trevor Zinck watches Nova Scotia politics from the sidelines. But a lingering politicians' expenses scandal, reminiscent of the one rocking the Senate and Stephen Harper's government, has transformed him into one of the most powerful politicians in the province.

The member for Dartmouth North, for now at least, is dictating when Nova Scotians go to the polls in the next provincial election.

His trial on charges of theft, fraud and breach of trust began this week in Halifax, and the timing -- and the bad-news headlines the case will generate -- all but ensured Premier Darrell Dexter would not call a spring election.

Zinck is the last of four MLAs of all three major parties to face charges of expense fraud after a 2010 auditor general's report flagged questionable expenditures that including the purchase of a big-screen television and a generator installed in one politician's home.

The others pleaded guilty and took their lumps. Dave Wilson, a member of the opposition Liberals whose gambling addiction drove him to steal more than $61,000, served four months of a nine-month jail sentence. Liberal-turned-independent Russell MacKinnon pleaded guilty to a charge of breach of trust and was sentenced to four months under house arrest.

Richard Hurlburt, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister who bought the generator and television, received a year's house arrest for fraud and breach of trust after admitting he had submitted more than $25,000 in false expense claims.

Zinck, a former backbencher in Dexter's NDP government (he was expelled from the party for his alleged indiscretions), is an unwelcome reminder of a scandal that sparked public outrage and left his former colleagues scrambling to open politicians' expenses to public scrutiny.

His trial, slated to last 10 days and sure to expose fresh evidence of misuse of taxpayers' money, is not the way the Dexter government wanted to mark its fourth anniversary this week of the breakthrough win that made it the first NDP government east of Ontario.

Dexter must face voters within a year -- Nova Scotia is still a holdout when it comes to fixed-date election laws -- and his government's April announcement of a long-promised balanced budget signalled a possible spring vote. Attack ads have been popping up on television screens for months, campaign offices have opened and some candidates have begun knocking on doors.

But Zinck's resolve to fight the allegations, which involve $10,000 earmarked for community groups, has all but ruled out a campaign until at least the fall. As Halifax Chronicle Herald columnist Marilla Stephenson pointed out, it's tough to ask for public support "when voters are being reminded, thanks to another high-profile court case, of all the reasons why they just don't trust politicians."

Weak polling numbers have given Dexter another reason to delay an election call. A survey by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, released this week, gave the Liberals and leader Stephen McNeil the support of 45 per cent of decided voters, up from 39 per cent in February. Federal leader Justin Trudeau's recent pledge to lend his star power to the upcoming campaign is a further boost for McNeil.

NDP support, meanwhile, has dropped to 26 per cent from 32 per cent since February, matching the figure for the PCs. Dexter obviously would prefer to drop the writ when the numbers are more promising -- and with more than half of those polled undecided, there are still plenty of voters to be won over.

Another factor has been the uncertainty hanging over the planned $1.5-billion subsea cable to import power from Labrador's Lower Churchill hydroelectric project. It's a key element in the government's clean-energy strategy, but opponents have balked at the potential for higher power rates. Regulatory hearings wrapped up only last week and a ruling that could scuttle the project is not expected until the end of July.

And it didn't help the NDP's cause when Percy Paris, the minister of economic and rural development and tourism, lost his cool on the final day of the spring sitting of the legislature. He's due in court in mid-July on charges of assault and uttering threats after allegedly shoving a Liberal MLA during an altercation outside the legislative chamber.

Trevor Zinck, meanwhile, remains a bigger embarrassment. Last month, to further distance the government from the expense scandal, the NDP passed amendments to strip the pension of any politician convicted of a serious criminal offence while in office.

The law comes too late to snag the trio already dealt with by the courts but Zinck is entitled to an estimated $30,000 annual pension when he reaches age 55 -- a dozen years from now -- that will be lost if he pleads guilty or is convicted at trial.

It raises the stakes as he tries to clear his name in the courtroom. For a government hoping for a second term, the verdict in his case -- and the end of a long-running expense scandal -- can't come soon enough.

 

Dean Jobb, a professor of journalism at the

University of King's College in Halifax, is the

Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2013 A13

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