National News

Fontana spared jail time; gets house arrest

By Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

LONDON, Ont. - Former Liberal cabinet minister Joe Fontana was sentenced Tuesday to four months of house arrest for a government fraud, avoiding time behind bars, but nonetheless leaving court with his reputation "in tatters."

Fontana resigned as mayor of London, Ont., last month after he was found guilty of fraud, forgery and breach of trust by a public official. He said he would not seek public office again.

One act involving what the judge described as a "rudimentary and almost child-like" forgery of an expense document felled Fontana's three-decade municipal and federal political career, leaving the one-time labour and housing minister crying outside the courthouse.

"I'm going to have to live with this for the rest of my life, but I've got a lot more to offer," he said after he was sentenced, turning away from the cameras as tears started to fall.

Superior Court Judge Bruce Thomas was at a loss to ascribe motive to Fontana's $1,700 fraud, saying "personal gain" appears to be the only reason, despite his significant salary, benefits and office budget.

"The reasons confound me," Thomas said. "Perhaps it was simply because he could."

Fontana's lawyer said he didn't agree that greed was a factor.

"I think it was just stupid," Gord Cudmore said outside court. He said Fontana will not be appealing.

Cudmore had urged the judge to consider Fontana's long career of public service and his good works. He submitted 45 character reference letters to that effect. Fontana has already spent the past two years being pilloried "in the Internet stocks," Cudmore said.

"He has been ridiculed, humiliated and denounced," he told the judge.

"In the last two years he has been defined by this charge, but I submit to you the definition of Joe Fontana is contained in that booklet (of letters) you have."

The judge said Fontana's offence is more serious than the amount of $1,700 would suggest, because it involved abuse of authority.

"It may be in our terms a small pebble...but its ripple effect stretches further and lasts longer than the mass of the deed would seem," Thomas said.

He acknowledged there were several mitigating factors on sentencing.

"He has resigned in disgrace," Thomas said. "His reputation is in tatters. He has been vilified by the media. His family is forced to carry that burden with them."

Before he was sentenced Fontana told the judge that he regrets the pain and embarrassment he has caused.

"Nine years ago I did something very, very stupid, very, very, very wrong," he told the judge.

"I made a big, big mistake. What's ensued since then is I've disgraced my family, my mother and father, who gave me an opportunity and spoke to me about always giving back, and my wife, my kids, my friends, my community and city and country and the very institutions that I've always respected — especially this one."

Following the four months of house arrest, Fontana will be on probation for 18 months. He must also pay a $1,000 victim fine surcharge and his lawyer said a restitution cheque of $1,700 has been made out to the government.

When Fontana was a Liberal member of Parliament, he forged a contract from his son's wedding to make it look as though it was for a political event at the same venue, the judge previously found.

The political event didn't end up going ahead at the Marconi Club, but Fontana testified he believed the club was owed a $1,700 deposit from his MP budget, despite the club not asking for any money.

Since he had only spoken with the club's president — a friend of more than 40 years — over the phone and didn't have any paperwork, Fontana changed several details on the wedding contract from a few months prior and submitted it, he testified.

The club received the Government of Canada cheque and credited it to Fontana's son's wedding.

The judge said he believed the cheque was mistakenly sent to the venue. Fontana intended for it to go directly to him, Thomas found, and if the money had indeed gone to Fontana, no one would have been the wiser.

The Crown had called for Fontana to spend four to six months in jail.

At the time of the fraud a person making $19,000 a year with no special deductions would have paid approximately $1,700 in federal income taxes, said Crown attorney Timothy Zuber.

"I think the question has to be asked: what would that person's response be to the argument this is not a lot of money?" Zuber said.

Fontana spent more than that on a "night table," which included smoked salmon and chocolate-dipped strawberries, at his son's wedding, Zuber noted.

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