By Belle Hatfield
For the Vanguard
The man who was billed as a fighter when he ran for the MLA’s seat is fighting another battle –this one to stay out of jail.
Former Yarmouth MLA Richard Hurlburt will have to wait until Friday, July 27, to learn his fate. After a four-hour sentencing hearing in Yarmouth on Thursday on charges stemming from the MLA expense scandal, Justice David MacAdam reserved decision.
Hurlburt pled guilty in April to one count of fraud over $5,000 and one count of breach of trust. At that time, three charges of uttering forged documents were withdrawn.
In a voice quivering with emotion, Hurlburt addressed the court at the end of the sentencing hearing. He said, “I am taking full responsibility for my actions and I deeply regret the embarrassment I have caused my family. I am a lucky man in that my family, my friends and many in my community have forgiven me and supported my wife and I in this difficult time. … I know the public faith in the political system is fragile and I regret that my actions may have led to an increased distrust in the political system.”
According to the agreed statement of facts, Hurlburt submitted four invoices as part of his constituency expense claims for expenses that were not incurred as constituency expenses. The receipts totalled $25,320.77.
A $3,508.92 invoice was included in Hurlburt’s expense claims for December 2006 for purchase and installation of a 40- inch big screen television. The RCMP investigation determined that Hurlburt bought a TV from a local business on Dec. 27, 2006 and the same company later installed a TV that matched the description at Hurlburt’s home in Hebron.
In expense claims submitted for December of 2007 and 2008 there were invoices totalling $12,777.50 that appear to be from a local carpentry company for renovations to his constituency office. RCMP determined that that work had not occurred.
And there was payment for a generator, which created such a storm of publicity when the expense scandal broke in February 2010. Included in Hurlburt’s December 2008 expense claim was a sales order from another company for $9,034.35.
On it was a handwritten notation indicating payment was made using VISA. The order was for purchase and installation of a Honda generator and electrical generator panel at Hurlburt’s Hebron home.
A company representative never installed the generator identified in the quote and told RCMP his company does not accept VISA as a payment method. Hurlburt was reimbursed for the invoice in January 2009.
In July of 2009, the auditor general announced his office would be conducting an audit of MLA expenses.
In October of 2009 Hurlburt had the company install a King Canada generator, supplied by Hurlburt, and an electrical panel installed at his residence. The bill for the work was $2,602.91.
The Crown is seeking between nine and 12 months in jail. Crown prosecutor Andrew MacDonald characterized Hurlburt’s offences, which occurred over a three-year period from Dec. 24, 2006 to Dec. 26, 2008, as “a serious breach of the public trust.”
“This breach was not a momentary lapse in judgment, nor was it an impulsive or spontaneous act. It was a deliberate act to defraud the people of Nova Scotia over a three-year period of time,” he said.
The defence, saying jailing Hurlburt was not necessary, has suggested a nine-month conditional sentence – six months house arrest, three months on curfew and 200 hours of community service. If he has to do jail time, the defence said they’d prefer it was an intermittent sentence.
Hurlburt’s lawyer, Stan MacDonald, described his client as a generous man who gave freely of his time and money to help his constituents. In speaking to motivation, he suggested his actions were a misguided way of reimbursing himself for money he was spending in excess of the $1,000 monthly allowance MLAs then had to spend at their discretion. Each of the expense claims in question was submitted at the end of the calendar year, after which any unused portion of the constituency allowance (then between $4,000 and $5,500 a month) would not be carried over.
“He resigned because he knew he had done wrong,” he said, adding that since then Hurlburt has cooperated, made full restitution and acknowledged and apologized for his behaviour.
Three character witnesses were called by the defence.
Shirley Hubbard, chair of the Yarmouth County Hospice Society, described Hurlburt as “an all-round good guy” who “gets the job done.” She said, given the chance, that she and “98 per cent of the people I know” would vote for him again.
Yarmouth town councillor Martin Pink is a close personal friend and has worked with him on projects since Hurlburt’s days as a councillor and then warden of the Municipality of Yarmouth. He described Hurlburt as a hard worker who fought for his community. Pink said over the years, Hurlburt was the “key person” on a number of projects, “including the very building we are in right now.”
Rev A.D. (Bill) Newell addressed the impact the scandal has had on Hurlburt and his family.
“It has taken a heavy, heavy toll emotionally and physically,” he said.
When Hurlburt first entered provincial politics in 1999, he repeatedly said that he was going to fight for the riding of Yarmouth.
Hurlburt was re-elected in 2003, 2006 and 2009 and served as minister of natural resources, economic development and Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations. He resigned as Yarmouth’s MLA on Feb. 9, 2010, six days after the auditor general’s report was released.