Nfld. & Labrador

Former N.L. minister Byrne pleads guilty to fraud

A disgraced former Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister pleaded guilty Friday to charges that included defrauding the government of money paid through his legislative allowance.

Will ask for conditional sentence, defence lawyer says

Ed Byrne had little to say to reporters when he entered provincial court on Friday. (CBC)

A disgraced former Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister pleaded guilty Friday to charges that included defrauding the government of money paid through his legislative allowance.

Ed Byrne, who resigned as natural resources minister in June 2006 when a scandal over legislative spending began to rock Newfoundland and Labrador politics, entered the plea Friday morning in provincial court in St. John's.

Byrne pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud, including one charge of fraud against the government, a crime that was formerly known as influence peddling.

Other charges, including two counts of fraud, breach of trust and uttering forged documents, were withdrawn.

Byrne declined comment to reporters before and after his appearance in court.

"Well, I'm not in a position to say anything. I think you'll understand that," he said.

Defence lawyer Bob Simmonds said he will ask for a conditional sentence. If granted, it would mean that Byrne would avoid serving time in jail.

Byrne will return to court in April for a sentencing hearing.

Lawyer Bob Simmonds says he will ask for a conditional sentence at a hearing in April. ((CBC))

Crown prosecutor Frances Knickle is not saying, for now, what she will suggest to a judge as an appropriate sentence for Byrne. She said, however, there is no joint agreement with the defence on possible punishment.

She said courts have imposed a range of sentences on similar offences.

"Even matters involving public officials range anywhere from fines up to federal sentences, so it's a fairly wide range," Knickle said.

Simmonds said he reached an agreement with the Crown on Thursday night about Byrne's pleas on two counts, with the withdrawal of other charges.

Simmonds told the court that Byrne will repay more than $100,000 to the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

Had been key minister in government

Byrne's fall from grace has been steep and hard. A former leader of the now-governing Progressive Conservatives, he had been the chief lieutenant to Premier Danny Williams, having served as government house leader until the scandal broke.

Byrne was one of five men — four politicians and a senior civil servant — to be charged following a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary investigation into what has often been called Newfoundland and Labrador's legislative spending scandal.

The police investigation was launched after Auditor General John Noseworthy released a series of reports showing that the four officials, as well as another who was not charged, had received a total of $1.6 million more than their entitlements in tax-free constituency allowances.

Noseworthy's first report found that Byrne had received more than 10 times his constituency allowance over a two-year period.

In a subsequent report, Noseworthy found that Byrne had received payments of $467,653 beyond his entitlements.

Byrne, 45, had been expected to plead guilty. Simmonds indicated weeks ago that the criminal charges could be dealt with in just two days.

Even so, Byrne, in one of his last public appearances in November 2006, said he would be vindicated.

"I believe that when it does conclude itself, my name will be cleared," Byrne said in an interview at the time with CBC News.

A month later, Byrne resigned his St. John's-area seat of Kilbride. 

He was charged in April 2008 with impaired driving. He later pleaded not guilty to that charge.

Byrne's legal troubles are not over. He has retained lawyer Tom Fraize to represent him in a civil action brought by the Newfoundland and Labrador government, which is attempting to recoup overpayments made through constituency allowances.

The first person named in the legislative spending scandal, Byrne's is also the first case to be resolved.

Former Liberal cabinet ministers Wally Andersen and Jim Walsh have not yet been tried. Former New Democrat Randy Collins is also awaiting trial.

The Crown has also charged Bill Murray, the former director of finance at the house of assembly, who, Noseworthy said, played a critical role in the legislative spending issue. Murray faces seven charges, including fraud against the government, fraud over $5,000, breach of trust and uttering forged documents.