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Deja Vu All Over Again

Posted: Jun 20, 2013 2:34 PM ET Last Updated: Jun 20, 2013 2:34 PM ET

I have been reminded of that famous deju vu quote from baseball legend Yogi Berra over the past couple of weeks as I've watched the saga of Trevor Zinck play out in the court house and at Province House.

I am experiencing deja vu because I really have seen this all before.

In the 1980s, I covered politics in this province. I had an office alongside other reporters in the catacombs under Province House. For years I kept a dog-eared copy of an Auditor General's report. A different auditor general, but with the same conclusions that led to the downfall of Zinck, Wilson, MacKinnon and Hurlburt. Back in the 80s, the auditor general raised questions about the expenses of a handful of members of the legislature. Most of them cleaned up their act before police got involved. One of them grabbed national headlines. It was then cabinet minister Billy Joe MacLean.

MacLean is one of the best natural politicians I have seen in action, with an innate gift for charming people and working a crowd.

However, charm didn't work for MacLean when he was accused of filing false expense claims. He quit cabinet, went to court and admitted to filing $22,000 in false expense claims. He was sentenced to a day in jail.

And then the games began in earnest.

The conviction was an embarassment to the government of John Buchanan. They wanted him out of the legislature. Billy Joe wouldn't budge.

Province House was a different place back in those days. The biggest difference is that the premier's office was right in the building. Buchanan had a corner office on the Hollis Street level. There was no large reception area to buffer him from the public. There was no back door or secret entrance. Every time Buchanan had to go somewhere, he had to pass through the same lobby tourists and other members of the public mill through. And that's where we waited.

There was always a small knot of reporters loitering in that lobby. And every time Buchanan passed through, we'd lob another question at him about Billy Joe MacLean. And Buchanan, ever the politician, would stop and talk, even though the subject was undoubtedly distasteful.

Bit by bit, starting in tiny increments that eventually gained momentum as the story dragged on, Buchanan stepped up the rhetoric against his friend and former cabinet colleague. The links between Buchanan and MacLean appear to have been much tighter than the ties between Trevor Zinck and Darrell Dexter. But eventually, Buchanan publically called on his old friend to resign his seat as the member for Inverness South. When MacLean ignored that call, Buchanan recalled the legislature for a special session to expel him.

At this point, the stories diverge slightly. Based on past experience and public outrage, today's legislature has tweaked its own rules to strip Zinck of his MLAs' pension and -- if he kept his seat -- his transition allowance. Faced with those consequences, Zinck opted to resign.

With no similar penalties hanging over him, Maclean chose to stand and fight. The session resembled a rugby scrum, with everyone piling on the member for Inverness South. Even Buchanan weighed in. I was listening to the debate on headphones in my basement office. But people who watched it unfold say Buchanan shed a tear as he spoke. MacLean also spoke. I honestly don't remember much of what he said. At the end of the day, he was expelled.

Any student of Nova Scotia political history knows the story didn't end there. MacLean successfully appealed the special legislation that had been used to expel him. He then ran in a byelection in the dead of winter, sending all of us careening over snowy backroads to rallies and campaign speeches to see how it turned out.

MacLean proved to be a political phoenix, clobbering his competition to return to the legislature as an independent MLA. He held the seat until the next general election. That still wasn't the end, as MacLean has gone on to forge a highly successful career in municipal politics as the Mayor of Port Hawkesbury. None of this is to suggest Trevor Zinck can pull off the same political miracle; I have no idea if he can match Billy Joe's skill on the stump, or tap into the same cynicism directed at politicians that MacLean exploited so well.

In the 26 years since the MacLean case, I've learned from fraud experts that the sort of forensic audits that expose this kind of crime are extremely complicated and require mountains of documentation. That's why these searches tend to be limited to specific, relatively narrow time-frames like three to six months. And that's why, as much as many of us would like to see it, a broader probe going back years and encompassing all the remaining 51 members of the house is probably not practical.

The depressing thing I take away from all this is that -- then as now -- people don't seem to have learned anything. Otherwise, how would it have been possible for this same story to have played out twice, in the same legislature, in the space of just 26 years? I don't expect to still be in this business 26 years from now. But being a cynic, I suggest we save all the stories that have been written in the past couple of months, to see if they can't be used to reflect on the same political scandal in the next quarter century.

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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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