And no wonder. The room was packed with reporters, some perspiring heavily. The owner of the building must have received a density bonus, so high was the concentration of the fourth estate.
It was, after all, a momentous occasion, the mayor speaking out for the first time since retaining a lawyer and since being charged with three criminal offences: breach of public trust, uttering a forged document, and fraud under $5,000.
I had predicted correctly that Fontana would hold firm and not step aside despite the severity of the charges. But I was surprised to hear him say clearly and several times at that, that he was innocent of all the charges.
It had been a more than a month since the allegations had surfaced and the RCMP investigation undertaken. Not once during that time did he make such an unequivocal statement; the best he had been able to come up with previously was that he believed all transactions would be found to be proper and that his records showed that a payment had been made from his personal account to the Marconi Club during the relevant time frame. Never once did he say “I paid the bill.”
But now, only a day after the RCMP laid the charges, he and his lawyer were adamant that the Fontana family had paid the bill for the wedding reception for his stepson and that Fontana himself was innocent and accordingly would plead not guilty upon his first court appearance in January.
So what had changed? Why innocent now and not a month ago? Did being charged jolt his memory? And just when did the payment for the reception occur? And to whom was the payment made?
These are all questions awaiting answers, which may not come for some time. Noting that matters proceed slowly through the courts, Cudmore, Fontana’s lawyer, estimated that it could take a year or so. In other words, about in time for the next election but not much before. Cudmore also hinted at the argument that the defence might use when the time came.
It was his understanding, he said, that the RCMP had documentation that the Fontana family had paid the outstanding balance of $20,000 or so. He hadn’t seen the evidence; it was just his understanding. So all that was in dispute was the $1,700 for the “room deposit” and it seems that there had been a number of government-related events at the Marconi Club that year. So maybe, he implied, it was all just a little mix up.
But he wanted these matters dealt with in a court of law, not in the court of public opinion. He wanted the presumption of innocence as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It sounded very noble.
Some people have taken that mantra to defend Fontana. He should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
True enough. But the presumption of innocence is not what guides either police investigations or the holding of public office. As someone facing criminal charges, the mayor was required to step down from his position on the Police Services Board. But not from being the budget chief in charge of a billion dollar budget.
Any teacher facing assault charges would be removed from her classroom until the allegations were resolved.
A bank employee charged with fraud would not be left in charge of client accounts.
A city hall employee alleged to have interfered with a government investigation found herself unceremoniously escorted out the door.
Were these violations of the presumption of innocence?
The presumption of innocence is a guideline for how matters should be dealt with by the courts; it is not a recipe for daily action in public or private life. If your daughter or son were romantically involved with someone facing criminal charges, would you give them your blessing because you presumed innocence?
The presumption of innocence means there are rules for disclosure of evidence and the questioning of witnesses. It governs what evidence is or isn’t admissible according to strict guidelines. It requires that the finding of guilt must be based on more than just likelihood; it should be established beyond a reasonable doubt.
The concerns that Londoners have about their mayor is not whether he is guilty of wrongdoing within a narrow definition of criminal offences, but whether he is acting in an ethical manner publicly and privately. Can they trust him to put the needs of the city and its residents ahead of his own and his friends' and family’s interests?
So it’s not just the $1,700 or even $20,000. It’s the millions of dollars that have been taken from taxpayers to give hefty receipts to “donors” to his private charity. It’s working with and for individuals who have engaged in shady business practices. It’s being involved in enterprises that leave investors wondering where their money went. It’s stacking committees and interpreting rules to produce the outcome that favours a few at the expenses of the many. It's giving tax breaks now to be paid by our children later.
How is the public to deal with those concerns and those questions?
The Municipal Act is ill-equipped to deal with incompetent or unethical representatives and conflict of interest is very narrowly defined. The one tool that municipalities have been given is the right to retain an integrity commissioner, but only a few weeks ago a majority of council, led by the mayor, turned down that option. Had such a person been available to council, s/he would not have been able to force the mayor to step aside, but there could at least have been an investigation and a report for the public and its representatives. Citizens could have had a voice.
The one thing this council has done repeatedly is to overturn previous decisions of council. Even its own decisions. A new council year is about to begin.
Perhaps this next year will be the year that a few more council members begin to appreciate the importance of integrity. Perhaps an integrity commissioner will be welcome.
Integrity looks good on campaign literature.