HALIFAX — Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says his chief of staff was told about a drunk driving allegation involving a Liberal backbencher last May, but she did not pass the information on to him.
McNeil told reporters Wednesday he was out of the country on a trade mission last spring when Laurie Graham received a phone call concerning Hugh MacKay, who resigned from the party's caucus on Sunday.
MacKay, who now is now sitting as an Independent, faces a charge of impaired operation of a motor vehicle in connection with a Nov 22, 2018 incident. He pleaded guilty to a separate impaired driving charge last fall and was fined.
"She (Graham) would have received a call that said to her there was this allegation that had been investigated and there was no substance to it, and that was the end of it," McNeil said.
The premier said Graham didn't tell him about the call, and the first he learned of it was on Tuesday. McNeil couldn't say who called Graham, and a spokesman in his office would only say later that the call "came through the party."
McNeil said he understood that the local riding association president had investigated the matter and found the allegation was unsubstantiated. "The job of the chief of staff is actually to determine what actually gets to me and (what) actually has substance, which are the ones I have to deal with," he said.
The premier's spokesman, David Jackson, later said in an email that there was no formal investigation, although Graham made a number of follow-up inquiries and also deemed the allegations not to be credible.
McNeil made the revelation about Graham after facing a second day of questioning in the legislature from the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, who are alleging a coverup by Liberal officials.
The Tories are basing their allegation on a May 6, 2019 email they say is from an unnamed former member of the Chester St. Margaret's Liberal riding association. In it, the member gave an eyewitness account of an alleged incident involving MacKay that the member said they could "no longer keep hidden."
The allegations in the email, which the Tories made public, have not been proven in court. The Canadian Press has not been able to verify the email's author or recipients or the allegations in the email.
The email, which appears to have been sent to riding president Andre Veinotte and a member of MacKay's campaign team, allegedly details the author's Nov. 22, 2018 pursuit of an impaired MacKay in an effort to get him off the road. That was the day of the alleged incident for which MacKay is now facing a charge.
The author says they were asked in a "frantic call" to track down MacKay by his constituent assistant, Penny Lawless.
After an initial search, the person said they were able to spot MacKay in his parked silver GMC sport utility vehicle outside the community of New Ross.
"I walked up to the window and saw it was Hugh, slouched over and appearing very incoherent with a bottle of vodka in his lap," the email says.
According to the allegations in the email, attempts to get MacKay out of the vehicle proved unsuccessful and a chase ensued. The email says the chase finally ended when MacKay lost control and "plowed" into a lamp standard at the entrance of the parking lot at the Tantallon Shopping Centre outside Halifax.
The email's author said that they didn't believe anyone knew what happened aside from Lawless, MacKay's wife and possibly another riding association member. The email's author says the incident was being reported "in the name of public safety," adding that they have video evidence of what happened.
Veinotte's office said he was not available to comment Wednesday, and a message left for Lawless at the constituency office was not returned.
The RCMP says it received a report on Nov. 23, 2019 concerning MacKay's alleged impaired driving a year earlier and started an investigation that led to a charge being laid on Feb. 12.
MacKay wasn't in the legislature Wednesday, and a message left at his constituency office was not returned. He did release a statement following the Oct. 13, 2019 incident that led to him pleading guilty and receiving a fine.
The statement discussed his struggles with alcohol addiction and he said he had been undergoing treatment since 2004.
MacKay expressed remorse at the time for the impact his relapse had on family, colleagues and community members and asked for privacy as he sought further treatment.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston said it all amounts to a "sad situation."
"The Liberal Party knew about this for a long period of time ... and they chose to do nothing," he said. "If the premier didn't know about this, it speaks to a very dangerous culture within the party."
MacKay is scheduled to appear in a Halifax court on March 16.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2020.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press