Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/8/2009 (4299 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In Montreal, the case of investment adviser Earl Jones is quickly evolving into a melodrama worthy of novelist Tom Wolfe. Last week, justice officials forced the tanned, white-haired Jones to walk a gauntlet of gawkers, photographers and aggrieved investors outside a Montreal courthouse following his release on bail. It was quite a spectacle.
Jones is accused of running a Ponzi scheme, a fraud that sees money from new clients used to pay returns to existing clients. This continues until there is no new money, and everyone loses everything. When Quebec authorities finally shut down Jones's firm, as much as $50 million of investors' money may have gone missing.
The Jones case is instructive because it demonstrates just how passive our justice system is when it comes to white-collar crime. Jones had been defrauding investors for years, but it wasn't until some of his own clients caught onto the scam that justice officials took action. By that time, it was too late to save anyone's money.
The awful reality is that white-collar crime is complex and expensive to investigate. This means that many bona fide frauds never get any attention from law enforcement agencies.
In the wake of the Jones arrest, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked what his government is doing to address this problem. He responded that his government would do more, but legislation to deal with fraudsters was being held up by the Opposition.
"Our government has been trying to strengthen the criminal justice system," Harper told reporters last week. "I do hope that this debate will open everybody's eyes, that these crimes have real victims. They may be not be victims of violence, but they are real victims who are suffering real pain and we should have a criminal justice system that responds accordingly."
The Conservatives frequently complain about opposition stalling when they introduce omnibus justice legislation. However, it's a tenuous allegation, and one that has turned the Tories into the party that cries wolf.
Omnibus legislation is a not-too-shrewd strategy of lumping a bunch of stuff into a single bill to force the Opposition to support all of it, or run the risk they will be characterized as being against all of it. If the Opposition refuses to support the bill out of concern for any one part of it, members are accused of being either soft on crime or even of promoting criminal acts.
Either way, it is not an effective way of introducing measures to combat something as complicated as fraud.
The Prime Minister's Office later told the Globe and Mail that the law being delayed in this instance would bring to an end house arrest for those accused of theft over $5,000. When pressed, the PMO official said the government is also looking at other measures to combat white-colour crime. We clearly must wait until the next omnibus justice bill to find out exactly what it intends to do.
The federal Conservative government cannot be solely faulted for our inability to combat white-collar crime. For years now, we have allowed the clever and the not so clever to defraud their customers with virtually no response from the justice system.
Strengthening laws dealing with white-collar crime is one part of the equation, but the Tories should know by now that the threat of harsher penalties has little impact on criminals with no shame. Addressing this issue will also require an enormous investment in law enforcement.
Not more cops on the streets, which is the way politicians pander to voters. This is a problem that requires smart cops who are also forensic accountants. Canada needs a justice system that is prepared to investigate the smallest of frauds, and pursue the architects of those frauds to the gates of hell if necessary to get convictions.
Without a commitment to a modern approach, white-collar criminals will continue to steal.
The prime minister is correct when he notes that white-collar crime is very real, and that its victims feel pain just like the victims of violent crime. However, he is wrong to suggest his government has introduced measures to combat this pandemic. Bring in those measures, in a stand-alone bill, and there is every reason to believe the Opposition will find a way to support it.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.