The judge thought he was greedy; his lawyer said he was just stupid. What or whom to believe?
Those were the explanations given during and after the sentencing of Joseph Frank Fontana, ex-mayor of London, for his doctoring a receipt and submitting it to the Government of Canada for reimbursement while a cabinet minister.
Fontana himself tended to agree with his attorney. What he had done was very, very stupid. And very, very, very wrong. It was a mistake.
The judge didn’t necessarily disagree with this assessment. In fact, he had been almost incredulous that someone of Fontana’s sophistication and financial status would have done something “so rudimentary and almost child-like” as to make seven changes—dates, functions, signatures—using white-out, erasers and pens, and then photocopying and faxing the result from his home to his Ottawa office where he added the word “original” and requested payment to be made directly to him.
If all had gone according to plan, no one would have been the wiser; he would have received $1,700 from the taxpayers of Canada. As it was, the cheque went to the Marconi Club where the amount was applied directly to his son’s wedding, the function identified by the contract number 2661 which had escaped alteration. The Marconi Club was happy to see it since that was the exact amount needed to clear up all the outstanding bills, the total having already been reduced by $1,000 at the request of the board of directors, including Fontana’s long-time friend, club president Vince Trovato.
Word of the cheque got around quickly in the summer of 2005 but no one with proof was prepared to come forward and, in the absence of such corroboration, no one was about to point fingers in the general election during January of 2006 nor the municipal election later that fall.
Fontana ran in both elections. He held on to his London North Centre seat but was no longer a cabinet minister, the Liberals having been reduced to opposition status. He decided to try his luck running for mayor of London.
That too was a bust. He had to look for other means of income generation, although he had a generous federal pension. He joined and launched several enterprises. The $1,700 cheque remained a secret.
In 2010, he decided to have another go at becoming mayor. The incumbent had some personal issues that made her vulnerable. It was time to try again. This time, he managed to squeak in by some 2,500 votes.
To some, his approach to heading up council was refreshing. “Just pick up the damn bags,” he told employees, in violation of a council directive to the contrary. And this, before he had even been installed!
Protocol was not his strong suit. He dominated committees, spoke from the chair, ignored council’s policies, used “colourful” language. He was dynamic and domineering.
He gathered around him a gang of seven. They voted as a block, held secret meetings, got their preferred committee appointments and chair positions. They were dubbed the Fontana Ate in the Worst. Council. Ever.
He worked hard. He went to event after event and stayed, even after he had given greetings from the city. He spoke enthusiastically, if not always grammatically or coherently. He played the drums. People loved him. They felt he was one of them and on their side.
But not everyone was enthralled. There were stories and rumours about activities and associates, past and present, that were less than savoury.
There was the appointment of Todd Gillick, the financial chair of Fontana’s election campaign, as co-chair of the Economic Prosperity Council. Gillick had previously admitted forging the signatures of an aging couple on their wills, and had been fined by the mutual funds regulator and prohibited from selling securities.
There was also the time that Fontana’s company car had been towed out of his driveway for non-payment of the lease. That was in a venture with his Arva neighbour, Robert Vanier, in Allus Power, an alternative energy company. Vanier, it turned out, was also a former Hell’s Angels member who had become a police informant. He moved on to BC where last fall he was facing charges related to his Onco company, charges sparked by a complaint from a Londoner who had lost $104,000. He had invested in the company because he was impressed by Fontana’s involvement with Vanier.
Then there were those who were burned by investing in GPEC Global, Green Power Enviro Corp. Fontana was the managing chairperson of this waste to energy company promoted as being based on Christian principles. Millions of dollars were collected but financial statements were not forthcoming nor did the company manage to complete any projects. Investors lost their shirts and “employees” their promised paycheques.
And what about Fontana’s boyhood buddy, Vince Ciccone? He and his wife Karen Thompson-Ciccone have been charged with defrauding investors of more than $21 million in a land and resort development scheme. According to some of the victims of this scam, it was none other than Joe Fontana who led seminars and gave the Ciccone Group of Companies its appearance of legitimacy.
And that wasn’t the only connection. In 2007, Ciccone had established a charity, Trinity Global Support Foundation, but since the Ontario Securities Commission was hot on his tail, he invited his old friend, Joe Fontana, to take over as president. Fontana in turn invited his son Ugo, aka Joe Jr., to become president and some of his associates, including fellow Liberal and campaign worker Dave Broostad, and FinCore’s Loredana Onesan, who had her eye on some city-owned property in SoHo, to join him on the board which he chaired. In no time, the charity was issuing $152 million in tax receipts, the most in Canada, to its donors.
Just one little problem. They weren’t actually getting that much real cash. It was a tax shelter scheme. Most of the actual money collected went to the directors and promoters, but a few organizations received several thousand dollars in donations. Since they hadn’t expected or asked for any support, they were pretty thrilled with what they got.
When the information about Trinity Global was published in the local papers, Fontana dismissed it, saying that it wasn’t his job to check out the tax shelters he had hooked up with; he slept well at night. When the Canada Revenue Agency informed Trinity that the jig was up, it would lose its charitable status, his lawyer cried how “the children would go hungry”. Thousands of people who believed the Kijiji ad promising a $27,000 tax receipt for a $500 donation are being audited and having to pay both the taxman and the tax shelter the money owed. The charity, in the meantime, had invested $7 million in Ciccone’s now bankrupt investment business.
The man who had promised a tax freeze for four years was actually diverting tax dollars to his and his cronies' pockets and encouraging others to do likewise.
But none of these matters were raised at the sentencing hearing. The crown spoke of the seriousness of the charge, the breach of trust, and the aggravating factors. As a cabinet minister, Fontana had a position of privilege. This action caused considerable harm, to the public confidence and the reputation of all public officials; it undermines democracy. The action itself involved significant planning: gathering up the old document, the white-out, the eraser, the photocopy and fax machines. There were plenty of opportunities to re-consider along the way when erasing, copying over white-out, photocopying and faxing the document, retrieving it in Ottawa, and attaching the sticky note.
And what could possibly be the motive? He had a good job; a healthy paycheque, good benefits. There was no pressing need, no sick relative, no addiction to feed.
Crown attorney Zuber asked for a real jail sentence of four to six months, restitution to the taxpayers, and an elevated victim surcharge.
His client would not fare well in a real jail, Gord Cudmore, Fontana’s lawyer responded when it was his turn. Yes, it was a serious offence but, if Fontana had been an ordinary 64 year old businessman with no prior criminal convictions, there’s no way he would go to jail. Just a fine and probation.
And what’s more, the court was dealing here with a man who not only was a first time offender, but who, until this single moment of weakness, had an unblemished career of exemplary public service.
He had the testimonials to prove it, testimonials from London’s biggest landlord, Shmuel Farhi, and his employee, Jim Chapman, and former employee, Jack Malkin. Also Labourers’ International Union business manager Jim MacKinnon, and former clear cutter, Bill Graham, as well as his London North Centre successor, Glen Pearson and his wife, Jane Roy. And many others—Claude Pensa, Michael Lerner, Calvin Stiller, Don Donner, Susan Macphail—persons well-known in the community representing various prestigious and humanitarian institutions, and others from smaller, less known organizations.
Joe is a great guy, they wrote. Generous, approachable, caring. He was a great advocate for the vulnerable. He was a great family man. As far as they were concerned, the crimes of which he had been convicted were totally out of character. The judge should go easy on him.
A conditional sentence, if any sentence was required, should be enough, Cudmore argued. Restitution, of course. He had the cheque ready to go. And community service for sure.
The Honourable Justice Bruce Thomas asked Fontana to stand. Did he have anything to say?
Fontana did. He and his family had come to Canada 60 years ago last month as immigrants. He had had an incredible opportunity. And for 32 years he had served his country well. But then, nine years ago, he had made a very stupid mistake.
What that mistake was, he didn’t say. Was it trying to defraud the people he had promised to serve?
Or was it simply what he had claimed all along: that he had “created an original document” for a legitimate reason? Was it undermining the public trust, or was it getting caught?
Whatever, he had disgraced his family and friends, his city and his country. He regretted the pain he had caused; he would have to live with this the rest of his life.
The judge found his behaviour inexplicable.
“The reasons confound me,” he declared. Why had Fontana done this? He had excellent compensation and benefits. Maybe just because he could.
In any case, he accepted that this was a first offence and he agreed with Cudmore that he had certainly suffered from adverse publicity and having to give up his job as mayor. Cudmore had likened social media to the public stocks of an earlier era.
The public was not much at risk from having Fontana at large, said the judge. The real issue was public denunciation and general deterrence. You don’t want anyone to think this kind of behaviour from public officials is okay.
He gave Fontana a four month conditional sentence to be served in his Arva executive home. He may leave for medical appointments and visits to his lawyer, he may go to church, and he can go onto his patio or front steps for a smoke break.
But no other recreational drugs or alcohol. He placed no restrictions on who could visit Fontana or how often; he doubted that Fontana would be hosting a party every day. Any violations of the restrictions and off to real jail he would go.
Also, he would be expected to pay the $1,700 owed to the Government of Canada, $1,000 in victim surcharges, serve probation for 18 months after completion of the four month sentence, and perform 150 hours of community service by the 17th month of probation.
That last part should prove no problem for Fontana. As he said through tears after the session ended, “I have a lot more to give.”