Former Baddeck administrator pleads guilty to theft of more than $19,000

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The former chief administrative officer for the Village of Baddeck, N.S., who was charged with fraud two years ago, has pleaded guilty to theft instead.

Megan Cooper, 37, was fired by the village commissioners in October 2021 and was later charged with fraud over $5,000.

According to court documents, Cooper had somehow obtained $28,500 she was not entitled to, and officials from the village and the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs also said Cooper had left the finances in a mess.

Tax and utility bills had not been sent out, so there was little money coming in and invoices from suppliers were going unpaid.

Even now, the year-end figures for 2020 and 2021 are not yet finalized.

Cooper’s trial was scheduled for three days this week, but her virtual court appearance on the fraud charge on Monday only lasted about 10 minutes as she pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of theft.

‘Theft charge more appropriate’

The fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail, while the theft charge maximum is 10 years.

Crown prosecutor Carolyn Nearing said the plea deal was struck in part because of the facts of the case, not necessarily the possible penalty.

“In this case, the theft charge more appropriately covered the conduct and behaviour that we were dealing with,” she said.

According to an agreed statement of facts, Cooper transferred about $19,500 from the village’s bank account to her own between January 2021 and the time she was fired.

Nearing said plea deals are often preferable to trial outcomes, because they save public time and resources.

“Any time that someone is willing to come forward and take responsibility for their conduct … it’s not something to take lightly,” she said.

Crown and defence can submit joint sentencing recommendations, but in the end it’s up to the judge to decide.

Judge Peter Ross set sentencing for April 30, 2024, and ordered a pre-sentence report and referral to restorative justice, leaving Cooper free on conditions.

The agreed facts do not indicate why Cooper transferred village money to her own account without permission, but the statement does say Cooper was unsupervised.

After she was fired, Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr issued two orders for the village commission to clean up its governance and financial controls.

Nearing said the pre-sentence report and restorative justice report will help determine why Cooper stole the money, what sentence she could face and how much money can be recovered for the village.

Despite the discrepancy between the dollar figure cited in the initial charge and the agreed statement of facts, the village has filed an insurance claim for about $70,000.

Village manager Roman Braun-Huettner said that includes the funds transferred directly to Cooper’s account, plus unauthorized credit card purchases and the extra costs for accounting to straighten out the books.

Jennifer MacDonald, chair of the village’s elected board of commissioners, declined to comment on the court case or its effect on the village.

“We’ve got engaged commissioners, committee members and staff who are focused on ensuring that our infrastructure and operations are sustainable and meeting community needs and that our governance is transparent and accountable,” she said by email.

Cooper’s defence lawyer, also named Jennifer MacDonald and no relation to the village commissioner, was not immediately available for comment.

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