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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The trial of Fontana

Within the next 24 hours, Londoners are likely to know the fate of their former mayor, Joe Fontana. Just one month ago, he was found guilty of three criminal charges: fraud under $5,000; forgery, and breach of public trust.

I was present at the verdict that few, myself included, expected. Still, for many of us, the verdict has restored our faith in the justice system; cynically, we had anticipated that someone of that stature and with those connections would "get off", if not on all charges, at least the breach of public trust. That's serious.

Also serious was Fontana's face when he entered the courtroom of day two of the trial. Serious, old and tired. I had missed day one when the crown had put forward its case, but managed to attend on the day when the defense brought forward its witnesses.

There had been great speculation about whether or not the then mayor would testify. Many thought probably not since, as his lawyer would later acknowledge, those accused "tend to talk too much". It's hard to tell them "Don't answer that!" once they are on the stand.

So we were surprised when defense attorney Gord Cudmore called Joe Fontana to the stand as his first witness. Of course, the accused has to take the stand first if he is going to testify. Those are the rules. You can't have the accused taking the stand after he has heard all his witnesses' stories, and his witnesses can't be in the room when he is telling his side of things. So apparently Fontana had insisted on testifying in his own defense.

It was an unfortunate choice for Fontana. He started off well enough. He was Joseph Fontana, 64 years old, married to Vicky. He named his children. Occupation mayor. He claimed to have lived in London for 42 years, a surprise to me since I thought he was living in Arva, but maybe he was using a census definition rather than a political one.

He described his political biography. He had served in the federal parliament from 1988 to 2006. He had been the minister of housing and labour in the Paul Martin government from 2004 until the Conservatives took power early in 2006.

All MPs had expense accounts of approximately $260,000 to $270,000 to cover staff salaries, rents, utilities, travel and functions. You had to stay within those limits because, although there was some latitude, you could become personally responsible for any overruns. Cabinet ministers, of course, got extra money since they were likely to incur extra expenses.

Fontana also acknowledged that he was a member of the Marconi Club, and had been for many years. He frequently used the club for personal, party and parliamentary functions.

Weddings, he agreed, are a personal expense. In the case in question, his son Michael's marriage to Christina Nosko, had taken place on June 4, 2005. His wife had reminded him of the date, and he recognized her signature on the contract with the Marconi Club. Although there was an error on the date which was subsequently corrected and some adjustment to the number of rooms to be used and guests accommodated, the final bill was $18,900. Vicky had made a down payment of $1,700 immediately in the preceding October. Various parties made up the rest of the payment: the bride's family, Fontana's mother, Fontana himself, and $1,700 by the Government of Canada. It all added up to $18,900. Perfect.

When he had first been asked about the invoice from the Marconi Club by the RCMP, the taped interview revealed that Fontana denied having ever seen it. But then, he hadn't seen it for seven and a half years. How could he be expected to remember that?

But now his memory had been refreshed. Yes, he had seen it. There were changes to the document and he admitted he had made them. He had changed the date from October to February, the function from wedding to reception, the signature from Vicky's to his own.

But there was a good reason. In February Finance Minister Ralph Goodale was planning to come to town to talk about the budget at the Chamber of Commerce. This was a big deal for London; Fontana wanted to host a reception for him. So he called up his friend, the president of the Marconi Club, to reserve a room. Lots of people would want to come. It was all done in a rush.

However, as it turned out, Goodale got tied up with an event in Toronto and couldn't make it. Instead, there was a last minute scramble to hold a breakfast meeting at Joe Kool's instead.

Still, Fontana felt obligated to cover the cost of reserving the hall at the Marconi Club. But time was running short to get the expense claim in and, lacking a proper form to document the expenditure, Fontana decided to use the one that had been used for his son's wedding reservation, change some of the information on it, and submit that to the government for payment. He wouldn't want the club to be out of pocket. He used the old invoice only because it was handy; there was no intention to deceive. True, he didn't have a contract for the Goodale reception but, after all, it's the Marconi Club.

"They know me," he explained. No deposit was required because they knew he would be good for it.

When he had been confronted by the media last fall, he didn't know what they were talking about. He had scurried home, looked around the house for receipts, looking for anything. He  had gone to the Marconi Club. He couldn't remember who had paid for what. He had found his own cancelled cheque for $5,000. He had certainly never intended for the government to pay part of his son's wedding expenses.

Then came the cross-examination.

There were seven "alterations" to the document, the crown noted. And yet, when interrogated by the RCMP, he had claimed not to recognize it despite the fact that the media and council had brought it to his attention six weeks earlier. He knew what the RCMP was there for.

"I was hoping they would talk to you," Fontana said, inexplicably.

The crown pointed out that he was the creator of the document. How could he not recognize his own signature on it?

But it had been seven and a half years since he had seen it, Fontana argued. How could he be sure?

How could he remember? It was all happening so fast. He couldn't remember under pressure. Later, it all started to come back.

But you had six weeks to remember, Crown Attorney Zuber reminded him. Six weeks to remember and reconstruct.

"Maybe if they had asked me before they charged me; it would have been nice to have that discussion," Fontana replied.

"How many documents have you falsified?" the crown wanted to know.

"None", Fontana replied.

"Then why wouldn't you remember this one?"

He had made a flat out denial to the RCMP, he was reminded. "Then you came up with another story."

"Devine's (the RCMP interrogator) assumption was fraud. I couldn't agree with that," Fontana responded.

"When did the light bulb go off?" Zuber wanted to know.

"When I looked at all the documents," Fontana answered. Then he had started to reconstruct, to see the inconsistency in the dates.

"Whom did you speak to in finance?"

"I didn't talk to anyone; I just called the Marconi Club."

Then Zuber began to grill him about the Goodale event. What were the arrangements? Who was the co-ordinator? How many people were expected? Had he started inviting people? Who would be involved with organizing and issuing invitations?

Fontana seemed rattled by the questions.He wasn't sure; he thought it would just happen. Maybe 200-300 people. Broostad (North Centre Liberal president) would be involved, Elizabeth Cormier (London Fanshawe Liberal president), the president of London West, he couldn't recall. Those arrangements would have followed naturally.

But the Chamber of Commerce had had a press release. Did the constituency office have a press release? Were there tickets?

Fontana couldn't remember. He doesn't get involved in those details. The riding association most likely, since it was a political event. Not the constituency office which is nonpartisan.

He had heard about Goodale's delay and unavailablity two or three days before the event, Fontana explained. He didn't know who had contacted the Marconi Club about the cancellation. "That's why you have people who do those kinds of things."

But there was no paperwork for the rental, not for the reservation nor the cancellation. No invoice.

"As a member of parliament, don't you get an invoice for an event?" Zuber wanted to know. "Why didn't you call your friend Vince (Trovato, the club president) for the invoice?"

He had been harried, he was busy, Fontana defended himself. "I know it was dumb, it was stupid."

But apparently not so busy and harried that he couldn't take an old receipt and, with the aid of a bottle of white-out, an eraser, and a couple of pens, one black and one blue, he could create a new "original" document, one that he admitted faxing from his home in Arva to his office in Ottawa.

Did he start at the top with the date? Did he remember how he felt? Was he nervous? Why did he change the date to 2004? Was he careful to erase everything? Did he make a photocopy before faxing the document? How long did it take for the white-out to dry?

Fontana was flummoxed. He couldn't keep up with the questions. He couldn't recall any of the details. But he denied that he knew at that time he was doing something wrong. It was before his son's wedding.

Fontana had started out the morning, confident and clear. But now he was speaking more softly.

"You were trying to fool the House of Commons," Zuber told him."You were trying to get paid."

The yellow sticky note attached to the claim hadn't even mentioned Mr. Goodale, he pointed out. It stated simply, "constituency reception."

He had given the request for reimbursement to Kristy (Pearson) Cairns, his assistant. Payable to Joe Fontana, MP. "I submit this true documents," the cover letter states.

Would he deal with people who "create documents" from another document, the crown asked. Fontana admitted that he probably wouldn't accept something like that. It was wrong. It was stupid.

The final bill was $18,900 the crown pointed out. Once all the cheques were submitted, there was still $6,700 owing. Fontana wrote a cheque for $5,000 knowing that the remaining $1,700 through some clerical error had been sent to the Marconi Club instead of to him. The account was settled. Fontana never asked why he hadn't received the cheque, and the Marconi Club never questioned why it did. The $1,700 was added to the settlement of account 2261 as indicated on the newly created invoice, the wedding reception for Michael and Christie.

Fontana's testimony was supported by two witnesses: Beth Cormier and Vincent Trovato. Cormier is a partner in the law firm of Patton, Cormier and Associates who frequently appears before planning committee on behalf of local developers. She was, at the time of the incident, president of the London Fanshawe Liberal Riding Association. Trovato, at that time the president of the Marconi Club, has been a friend of Fontana since he was a teenager.

Cormier remembered the planned Goodale event well, she testified. She had been very excited about it since it would be held at the Marconi Club which was in her riding. What a coup! Hence, she was extremely disappointed that the reception had been cancelled since she was not able to attend the breakfast meeting at Joe Kool's on Saturday morning.

When pressed for details, however, she became more vague. She couldn't recall how these events were paid for, the cancellation, she thought, had been three or four days before the event. She didn't recall who actually contacted the membership to let them know about the changes nor did she know if she did some of the contacting herself. It was, after all, a long time ago.

Vincent Trovato had a much better memory. In early February 2005 he had received a call from Joe Fontana's office to see if "we had a certain date available." He had booked the hall and requested $1,700, non-refundable. The cheque for the booking had arrived in mid-April, and when club manager DiPietro had asked him about it, he suggested that they could just put the credit against some possible future event since no event had occurred. They were in the business of pleasing customers.

Why wasn't there an invoice, no record of the booking, the crown wondered. Why wasn't there some indication of how many guests, what kind of food, the need for a sound system? How many staff were going to be hired? Why wasn't the general manager looking after this?

He was on holidays, Trovato explained. The booking was made and cancelled while he was away. And there was not much advance planning. The food would be simple--finger foods, pizza, salad. As far as staffing was concerned, most of the staff would be the children of the club members. They could be there at a moment's notice. No need to schedule them in advance.

When he heard about the allegations against Fontana, Trovato was asked, what did he do? Did he go to the RCMP with his information?

No, Trovato replied. He had not taken the allegations seriously. It was a farce as far as he was concerned. Joe would be able to take care of it. He hadn't talked to him at all. Not once. The only reason he was here today was because Cudmore had called him about a month ago.

Some of this, especially the testimony that DiPietro was on vacation, was news to the crown. The general manager, DiPietro, had not been asked about his role in the cancelled reception. He should be recalled to testify in this regard.

The day ended with two questions: would DiPietro be recalled to the witness stand and, if the judge accepted the defence theory, had Fontana still committed an offence?

I wasn't able to attend the following day but, according to tweets from the trial, DiPietro was indeed allowed to testify, and his testimony was damning.

No, he had not been on holidays in February. Normally, he would have been, but in 2005 his father was extremely ill and awaiting surgery. Di Pietro had foregone his usual vacation in order to be near him. The surgery was not a success and his father had died in early March. His memory was clear about that point. And he had not been told anything about a reception for Mr. Goodale at the Marconi Club. And no one had suggested that the cheque for $1,700 was for anything other than the Fontana-Nosko wedding.

The judge gave himself two weeks to assess the evidence and his verdict was clear: guilty on all three charges. While he accepted that a Goodale reception had been planned and cancelled, something of which I am still not convinced, he concluded that the cancelled event was used by Fontana and his friend Trovato, "individually or collectively", to concoct a story to create "reasonable doubt". Fontana had deliberately doctored a document to defraud the public of $1,700 and enrich himself in the process. As the judge pointed out, if things had gone according to plan, the money would have been paid to Fontana and no one would be the wiser. As it was, someone screwed up and the money went to the Marconi Club where someone else could witness the transaction and retain a copy of it. The complete decision can be found here.

These events happened years ago and many of us had heard rumours about this at the time. It was only when other questions began to be raised in the media, questions about the mayor's associates and activities past and present, that these allegations became public and official.

Later today the judge will have to consider the submissions of the crown and the defence with respect to the sentence. Is this a case of an otherwise good citizen giving in to a momentary temptation, a temporary moral lapse? Or is this a case of simply getting caught, the tip of the iceberg? Do we want to set an example about what we expect from our public officials? Or do we think that this is a first offence, and a victimless crime at that? No harm done.

Stay tuned.


Hopeful Taxpayer said...

Given the judge's dim view of the mayor's role in the whole tawdry affair, my prediction:

Jail time for Joe.

Anonymous said...

Will this conviction mean that those involved in the Ornge scandal and the Gas plants will be charged and convicted too? Probably not, but we can hope.

How much money does Joe need? He took out big fees from that dodgy charity that was supposed to be helping people with Aids. That money alone should have been enough on top of his pension. What do the Fontanas do with their money since they seem to need so much? Is their house in Arva a castle?

Compassionate citizen said...

I was shocked to learn that Joe is not allowed any booze during his draconian four month house arrest. I wondered just how this barbaric restriction could be enforced. But then I remembered: the honour system in in force.

No problemo!

Anonymous said...

The gas plant fiasco is dumb, but it is not criminal last time I checked the criminal code.