Former N.L. minister Byrne sentenced to 2-year jail term

Ed Byrne, a disgraced former Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister, was sentenced Friday to jail over a fraud case that has rocked provincial politics for almost three years.
Ed Byrne, who pleaded guilty this winter to two fraud-related charges, is one of four former politicians charged in the legislative spending scandal. ((CBC))

Ed Byrne, a disgraced former Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister, was sentenced Friday to jail over a fraud case that has rocked provincial politics for almost three years.

Judge Mark Pike sentenced Byrne, who admitted to forging documents and faking signatures while stealing more than $117,000 through his tax-free constituency allowances, to two years, less a day, the maximum possible sentence recommended by the Crown.

"The crimes of which Ed Byrne has been convicted are very serious," Pike told a provincial court hearing. "In his positions of high executive office … he abused his authority and the trust placed in him."

Byrne, who pleaded guilty this winter to two fraud-related charges, apologized before a crowded room at provincial court in St. John's, saying that his actions brought a "tsunami on my family, particularly my children."

Byrne, 45, who had been one of the key players in Newfoundland and Labrador politics for much of the last two decades, was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs after Pike brought down his sentence.

Judge Mark Pike said Ed Byrne 'abused his authority and the trust placed in him.' ((CBC))

His lawyer, Robert Simmonds, said Byrne will not appeal.

"The courts have spoken and Mr. Byrne will serve his time," Simmonds told reporters.

Asked to describe his client's reaction, Simmonds said, "What would you expect his reaction to be? This is a very terrible time … I think Ed Byrne will deal with it and will return as a beneficial member of society."

Crown prosecutor Frances Knickle said she was pleased with Pike's decision, which reached the limit of how much time Byrne can serve without being put in the federal prison system.

"We're lucky in this part of the world to have a democratic system. We rely on our public officials to behave honestly and with integrity," Knickle told reporters after the sentencing.

"If we can't uphold that, then where are we? It's very important."

'Undermining of democratic system'

Pike said while there were mitigating factors in Byrne's case, he felt the full sentence was warranted.

"When officials enrich themselves or others in circumstances such as this, there is an undermining of the democratic system," Pike said.

However, Pike said that Byrne was "genuinely remorseful" for what he had done, and does not pose a danger to the community.

Pike said that it is unlikely that Byrne will reoffend or be placed again in a high position of trust. He said other mitigating factors included Byrne's guilty plea, the fact that his marriage has broken down, and Byrne's willingness to repay money to the Crown.

Defence lawyer Robert Simmonds had asked for a conditional sentence, which would have essentially meant house arrest.

Pike also told Byrne that he must pay a full restitution to the Crown of $117,812, or the amount that Byrne agreed to have defrauded the treasury over a six-year period.

Had insisted his name would be cleared

Byrne's fall has been steep and hard. A former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, he had been minister of natural resources — a key portfolio in Newfoundland and Labrador, where energy has emerged as an economic engine — and as the government house leader.

Byrne resigned from the house of assembly in late 2006, shortly after conducting a round of media interviews in which he insisted that his name would ultimately be cleared.

However, Byrne pleaded guilty in January to two of the charges that had been brought against him. The Crown dropped others in return for the guilty plea.

In a sentencing submission earlier this month, Crown prosecutor Frances Knickle described Byrne's case as a "tragedy," and that Byrne in another life could have become premier. Byrne stepped aside as leader of the PCs in 2001 to make way for Danny Williams, who took the Tories to power in the 2003 election.

Byrne was one of four politicians, including a New Democrat and two Liberals, and a former senior civil servant charged with fraud and other counts in the wake of a police investigation that started in 2006. That investigation was itself sparked by Auditor General John Noseworthy's finding that $1.6 million had been overpaid to politicians through their constituency allowances.

Noseworthy found that Byrne had received payments of $467,653 beyond his entitlements. His plea agreement, though, covers significantly less.

Also charged were Liberals Wally Andersen and Jim Walsh, as well as New Democrat Randy Collins, and Bill Murray, the former finance director of the house of assembly.

None of the charges involving Andersen, Walsh, Collins and Murray have been proved in court.