There were previous reports of questionable financial activity—a charity headed by the mayor handing out inflated tax receipts, associates who ran afoul of the securities commission—but none has grabbed the attention of Londoners like the allegations that Joe Fontana, while a federal member of parliament and a cabinet minister, used taxpayers’ money to pay for his son’s 2005 wedding.
It’s the kind of thing people can relate to. These days, weddings are expensive propositions. There are the dresses and the flowers, the rehearsal dinner, the gifts for the wedding party, the honeymoon. It all adds up. But the biggest cost is for the reception. One hundred dollars per guest is not unusual once you throw in the dinner, the band and the open bar.
Of course, there is always the hope that the guests will come through with generous gifts, preferably in cash, to make it all worthwhile. Unfortunately, the gifts go to the happy couple; all too often, the parents get the bill.
If you are the parent, you probably should have been prepared for this, made it clear how much you were prepared to throw in for this shindig. And if you were planning to pick up the whole tab, you had better figure out where the money is going to come from. Maybe a bank loan, a line of credit or, if you had been planning ahead, cash in a couple of GIC’s that had been taken out for just such an eventuality. In any case, you probably wouldn’t be redirecting the bill to your neighbours.
But that is what appears to have happened in the case of the mayor’s son’s wedding. According to several reports in the London Free Press, Public Works Canada covered the $1,700 down payment on the event held at the Marconi Club and then, some six months later, paid the outstanding balance of $18,900.
The report by Chip Martin even included pictures of copies of the invoices and payment stubs, including cheque and invoice numbers and clearly identifying Joe Fontana, MP in the particulars. While all kinds of hanky-panky can be played with computers and Photoshop these days, a previous club manager, Joe DiPietro, verified the transactions. It’s no wonder that he remembered them “vividly” since he had spent six months chasing Fontana to pay the balance.
Fontana, when approached about these revelations last week, did not have so vivid a recollection. Even the fact that Martin had sent him several emails with specific questions seemed not to jog his memory. He didn’t reply to either the emails or the phone calls. Finally, he was confronted in person by Jonathan Sher at a meeting of the health unit on Thursday evening. By then, the story had broken online and it was all over the front page of the paper the next morning as well as on local radio stations.
A television clip had caught the mayor’s immediate response and it was not encouraging for those who wished to believe this was all a mistake.
“It was seven and a half years ago,” he pointed out. And throughout his 18 years in Parliament, he had had a “stellar reputation” with taxpayers’ dollars.
And then, a curious addition: “Parents and their children are responsible for paying their wedding reception bills.”
But there was no denial, no explanation. As one observer on Twitter noted, it would have been better to say, “No comment.”
The following morning, Free Press reporter Hank Daniszewski tried again to get clarification from the mayor.
Fontana argued that he “only learned of the information last night at 9 o’clock when, in fact, the local press pointed it out.” No one had talked to him about this issue in seven and a half years; he wanted to be given the opportunity to look at all the facts, study the information, do his “due diligence”.
“Blurry images” on the front page of the newspaper didn’t cut it for him, he wanted to see the “real documentation”. His big problem seemed to be that no one had shown him any “originals” so that he could take a look at what had occurred. Still no denial, no explanation.
These comments had been made on the spot as he was questioned by reporters, but by afternoon on Friday a formal statement was released on his personal but paid for by the taxpayers website.
He hadn’t been aware of any investigation about this, he stated. The documentation hadn’t been shared with him but “Londoners should know that I will get to the bottom of this….” He had started to obtain and review available documentation from 2005.
“I am confident a thorough and fair review will clearly demonstrate all transactions were proper and valid,” he concluded.
That confidence was not shared by the public. How could getting the taxpayers to pay for your son’s wedding reception be proper? Either the mayor paid for it personally or he did not. Surely, even after seven and a half years, you would remember who signed the cheque for your son’s wedding. Surely you would remember if the cheque was drawn on your own account or your employer’s. It’s not like remembering who picked up the tab for a couple of drinks at the club. Or even who paid for your orange juice while on business.
It’s hard for Londoners to get the attention of Ottawa. When the Electro-Motive Diesel Plant had closed, Fontana had demanded that the prime minister “get his ass down here” to no avail. Earlier, he had challenged the federal government to provide a $35M loan to Diamond Aircraft with similar results.
But Friday, the House of Commons listened to what was coming out of London. The matter had been turned over to the RCMP, we were informed. One Conservative backbencher suggested that “Canadians haven’t seen this kind of disrespect for their tax dollars since the days of the Liberal sponsorship scandal.” I guess he had forgotten about Bev Oda and Peter MacKay even though that was less than seven and a half years ago.
Over the weekend, Fontana released another statement. He had reviewed some of the documentation which “clearly indicates a personal payment made to the Marconi Club during the time frame in question.”
What on earth does that mean? Did he pay for a drink? Buy tickets to a social event? Make a charitable donation?
The prevarication was too much for most of those who were discussing the matter online. “The way he is dancing around the issue no matter the outcome, I have lost faith in his integrity, and ability to lead this city,” tweeted one, a sentiment shared by many others.
That’s not how Fontana sees it. “This is a serious matter; however, it will not impede nor affect my work as Mayor of London. This remains my priority and chief obligation,” he told Londoners via his website.
Others, however, see it differently. They wonder about the mayor’s ability to lead while under such a dark cloud of suspicion. Even his biggest supporters are beginning to feel uneasy with the current cat and mouse game played between the media and the mayor. Some may even be wondering about whether they voted correctly when they turned down the option of an integrity commissioner. One may have come in handy when deciding what to do.
As for what can be done should the allegations be deemed legitimate, it seems very little. There are few conditions under which a municipally elected official can be removed from office as long as he owns or rents property in the municipality, is eligible to vote in the municipality and doesn’t miss more than three consecutive months of council meetings without special leave from the council.
Of course, he could always resign. He has done that before, from the federal parliament in 2006 to seek the mayoralty here in London, and he made it, although it took a couple of elections. He could do it again, especially if public pressure becomes compelling.
After all, the Ontario Liberal Party is looking for a new leader.