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Former Liberal cabinet minister Joe Fontana guilty of fraud, forgery

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LONDON, Ont. - The mayor of London, Ont., forged a document that resulted in a $1,700 government fraud while he was a Liberal cabinet minister then concocted a story to cast it as a mere foolish misstep, a judge ruled Friday.

Joe Fontana was convicted of fraud, forgery and breach of trust by a public official after Superior Court Judge Bruce Thomas rejected the former MP's attempts to ascribe a legitimate motive to altering a contract from his son's wedding to make it look like it was for a political event at the same venue.

He submitted the forged document to the House of Commons for reimbursement, but his "criminal activity" was only detected when the government cheque ended up being sent to the venue instead of Fontana personally, Thomas found. If the money had gone directly to Fontana, no one would have been the wiser, the judge said.

"While I am perplexed as to why a man of such accomplishments might choose to take these actions for $1,700, I do not find that that detracts from the strength of the Crown case," Thomas said in his decision.

"I have long ago abandoned the notion that motive results from a logical cost-benefit analysis."

Fontana sat passively as the judge pronounced his convictions on fraud, forgery and breach of trust, but looked stricken by the time he got up to hug his wife.

"I'm very surprised, shocked, devastated by obviously the verdict," Fontana said outside court.

He did not say what the convictions mean for his political future nor if he would appeal.

"I regret that all this had to happen, especially for the people of London, but I'll have something to say in the near future," he said. "I obviously need to digest what has taken place, talk to my legal team and look at what I'm going to do."

Sentencing arguments are scheduled for July 15. The penalties range from an absolute discharge to time in custody, his lawyer Gord Cudmore said outside court.

According to the Municipal Act, a member of council is disqualified if at any time during their term, they become ineligible to vote in their municipal election. Another statute strips anyone incarcerated from voting municipally.

John Mascarin, a lawyer with expertise in municipal law, said any term of imprisonment — even a day or intermittent weekend sentence — would automatically disqualify Fontana from holding office.

"That's the only way you can do it," Mascarin said.

"A conviction on its own — no matter how egregious — if it doesn't carry any prison time doesn't disqualify a member from holding office.

Fontana testified during the trial that it was "stupid" of him to alter the document, but he insisted it was no forgery.

He admitted making seven changes — including whiting out his wife's signature, replacing it with his own and writing the word original in quotation marks at the top — to an existing contract with the Marconi Club for his son's 2005 wedding to reflect an event he planned for then-finance minister Ralph Goodale at the same venue.

Other alterations on the contract included changing the date of the event from June 25, 2005 to Feb. 25, 2004, the word "wedding" to "reception" and the addition of a yellow sticky note saying "misc constituents reception."

The Goodale 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.

Since he had only spoken with the club's president 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 $1,700 government of Canada cheque and credited it to Fontana's son's wedding.

Fontana, a veteran politician, sat in his home and used white-out and an eraser to make the changes, saying by way of explanation that his life was hectic due to a minority government. Yet one phone call to the Marconi Club could have produced a legitimate, original invoice that could have been forwarded for reimbursement, Thomas said.

"(Fontana) suggests that this was an expeditious way to ensure payment considering he was approaching the end of a fiscal year," Thomas said.

"I disbelieve him."

Thomas also did not believe Fontana's explanation that his "misc constituents reception" sticky note was meant to indicate the $1,700 should go to the Marconi Club for the cancelled Goodale reception.

"Mr. Fontana says that it should never have been credited against the wedding, but where else did he think it would go considering the Marconi Club could only reference it by contract 2661, his son's wedding reception contract?" Thomas said.

The president of the Marconi Club, a friend of Fontana's for more than 40 years, testified for the defence and backed up Fontana's story, but the judge pointed to various inconsistencies and said Vince Trovato's story "does not hold together."

"When he testified I got the feeling that Mr. Trovato was making it up as he went along," Thomas found.

"I come to the conclusion that he and Mr. Trovato either collectively or individually concocted a story for this court that was intended to create a reasonable doubt and in doing so allow Mr. Fontana to escape conviction. In my view any doubt raised in these circumstances would have to be far-fetched and fanciful and defy common sense."

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