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N.S. premier says chief of staff knew of allegations against former Liberal MLA for months

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The Nova Scotia Tories are accusing the premier and his government of a cover-up involving former Liberal MLA Hugh MacKay. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, the premier says he knows nothing about an alleged drunk driving incident in 2018.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil insists he didn’t know about serious allegations of impaired driving against a Liberal MLA because his chief of staff decided it wasn’t necessary to inform him.

McNeil has told reporters repeatedly this week that he found out about the accusations against Hugh MacKay, the representative for Chester-St. Margaret’s, when police charged him with impaired driving earlier this month.

Pressed by media on Wednesday however, McNeil said his chief of staff, Laurie Graham, has known about the alleged incident since their trade mission to Europe in May of 2019.

“She would have received a call that said to her there was this allegation, that it had been investigated and there was no substance to it and that was the end of it,” he explained.

The premier’s press secretary, David Jackson, later clarified those comments by email, saying the investigation cited by the premier wasn’t “formal.”

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“The matter was looked into and it was determined it had no credibility,” Jackson wrote. “The chief of staff then made a number of follow-up inquiries and also deemed the allegations not to be credible.”

READ MORE: Nova Scotia Tories say email shows coverup of alleged drunk driving incident

MacKay announced his resignation from the Liberal caucus on Sunday after he was charged for a second time with impaired driving, in connection with an incident in November 2018.

Opposition Leader Tim Houston launched a scathing attack against McNeil in the legislature on Wednesday, accusing Liberal staffers of trying to protect their party brand, “above the safety of Nova Scotians.”

“This is a very serious allegation,” Houston told reporters Wednesday. “If the premier is surrounded by people who think that this isn’t serious, there is a real problem with the way we’re governed in this province.”

At the heart of the explosive allegations is an email written by a former member of his riding association’s board of directors, presented by the Progressive Conservatives during question period on Tuesday. It describes an alleged impaired driving incident involving MacKay on Nov. 22, 2018.

The email from the former member, whose named is redacted, details the pursuit of an allegedly impaired MacKay in an effort to get him off the road as he weaved through his riding, eventually crashing into a light pole.

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It was addressed to former Chester-St Margaret’s Liberal Riding Association president Andre Veinotte, as well as Nova Scotia Liberal caucus officer Patricia Culbert and Richard Hattin, a member of MacKay’s campaign team in 2017.

The email was sent on May 6, 2019, about six months after the alleged incident occurred; its author says they are resigning from the board of directors because they are “struggling for the past while hiding an incident” they can no longer keep hidden.

MacKay was ‘extremely drunk,’ writer alleges

The writer said they received a “frantic” phone call at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 2018 from Penny Lawless, who works in MacKay’s constituency office, claiming MacKay was “very drunk, texting and calling her while he was driving.”

“This was approximately the (third) or (fourth) time this happened to her over the previous few months,” the writer stated, “so she instructed me to get in my car and drive to New Ross.”

The writer said Lawless knew MacKay’s location by using the iPhone’s Find My Friends feature, and he was “driving around New Ross with his locations changing moving around the back roads.”

Click to play video 'Nova Scotia Liberal MLA to seek help after being charged with driving under the influence' Nova Scotia Liberal MLA to seek help after being charged with driving under the influence
Nova Scotia Liberal MLA to seek help after being charged with driving under the influence

The writer says they eventually found the MLA sitting in the driver’s seat of his vehicle with the engine running and a bottle of vodka in his lap, and tried to get him out of the car — efforts he resisted.

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“Our discussion was cordial at first but when I pressed him to get out of the vehicle he told me a number of times — NO,” the writer continued. “His seat belt was on so I reached in to try and release it and he pushed me away.”

MacKay then drove off, the writer said, and ran over their foot in the process.

The writer stated they followed MacKay down Highway 12, flashing their lights to try and get him to pull over.

“He texted me saying ‘I’m so f—ing drunk…,’ and it was clear he was extremely drunk,” the writer said.

“My observations consisted of erratic driving, the smell when I opened the door (I am very sensitive to alcohol smells), his speech and his apparent lack of awareness of his situational surroundings.”

READ MORE: N.S. MLA charged twice with impaired driving to sit as an independent

MacKay eventually started driving on Highway 103, the writer alleges, where his speed would change from approximately 30 km/h to 150 km/h. The writer added that road conditions were becoming increasingly poor, but MacKay wouldn’t stop.

The author said MacKay eventually took Exit 5 to Upper Tantallon, where he rolled through two red lights, lost control of his vehicle and “plowed into a lamp standard.”

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The writer said MacKay’s SUV was significantly damaged, and that they had to physically remove him from the vehicle.

“I opened the door again and this time his seat belt was off, so I physically grabbed him and pulled him from the vehicle,” the author continued. “He immediately attempted to fight back, but quickly stopped his struggle.

“I picked up the vodka bottle from the passenger side floor well and put it in my vehicle … he was very drunk.”

The writer said MacKay’s vehicle was left in a parking lot and towed away three days later.

The author concluded by stating they kept quiet about the incident in order to protect MacKay’s reputation, his seat in the legislature, and Lawless’ income.

“I am aware that Mr. MacKay continues to drink and drive and his conduct must be stopped in the name of public safety,” the letter concludes.

None of the allegations in the letter have been proven in court, and NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the legislature isn’t the place to debate them.

“I don’t actually find it that constructive to try to prosecute the finer details of a case before the court on the floor of the legislature,” he told reporters.

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READ MORE: MLA for Chester-St. Margaret charged for allegedly driving under the influence in 2018 incident

MacKay has not responded to repeated calls for comment on the incident and Laurie Graham declined to speak to reporters on Wednesday. The province says there was never a formal investigation into the allegations, as the matter was looked into and “it was determined it had no credibility.”

Global News has also reached out to Andre Veinotte and Penny Lawless for comment but has not heard back.

MacKay’s lawyer Donald Murray and Jim Carwardine, the new president of the Chester-St Margaret’s Liberal Riding Association, declined to comment.

MacKay is scheduled to face the impaired driving charge in Halifax Provincial Court on March 16.

— With files from Sarah Ritchie.

Full Email Regarding Hugh MacKay Incident