Joe Fontana testifies why expense claim was doctored
London mayor Joe Fontana is accompanied by his wife Vicky as he leaves the . DEREK RUTTAN/ The London Free Press /QMI AGENCY
LONDON, Ont. -- The question put to Mayor Joe Fontana was as sharp as an arrow speeding to the bull's-eye.
"In your 18 years as an MP, how many documents did you falsify?" the Crown attorney asked.
Replied an indignant Fontana, "Pardon me?
"You heard me," said assistant Crown attorney Tim Zuber.
"None," replied Fontana.
"If this is such a unique event," Zuber responded, "then why in the world wouldn't you remember this?"
Wednesday was Day 3 of Joe Fontana's criminal trial, the former MP and cabinet minister on the stand.
The Crown wanted to know why London's mayor -- who's pleaded not guilty to three charges from his time as a Liberal on Parliament Hill -- couldn't recall, during an RCMP grilling, making at least six changes to his son's wedding reception contract and then submitting it as a House of Commons expense.
Fontana, 64, who took the stand in his own defence, said it was the first time he'd seen the documents in more than seven years. He hadn't had a chance to go through his files and talk to people about February 2005.
But once he had, he realized that, yes, he'd altered the Marconi Club contract -- an "original creation," he called it -- to expense the $1,700 deposit on a Marconi reception that never happened for Ralph Goodale, then the federal finance minister,
A promise is a promise and the money was owed, he said.
It was a cross-examination for the ages, pitting Zuber against the wily, veteran politician with a reputation and a career on the line.
The crowning moment was Zuber suggesting there was a clerical error in Ottawa when the government cheque was sent to the Marconi Club and not to Fontana directly.
"You were going to line you pockets with $1,700 cash. What do you say to that?"
"Wrong," the mayor responded.
Fontana's position is that he made an agreement with then-Marconi president Vince Travato, his friend of 40 years, over the phone in early February to secure Feb. 25, 2005, for a reception for Goodale before he was to speak to the chamber of commerce the next day.
A few days before the visit, Fontana was told Goodale wouldn't be able to make the reception because of delays in Toronto. It was cancelled and replaced by a hastily organized Saturday breakfast before the London speech.
The defence had other witnesses to back that claim.
But there was still the matter of the Marconi Club deposit. Fontana said it was owed because the room was held for him.
And so, Fontana took it upon himself to use the wedding-reception contract, found at his house and signed by his wife months before, to create "an original document" to submit for reimbursement.
"Stupidly, I made a mistake," he said to his lawyer Gordon Cudmore. Fontana said he never intended the money to be for his son's wedding reception.
Years later, once QMI Agency broke the story in 2012 about the questionable Marconi Club wedding payment, Fontana said he was "shocked," reviewed personal records and approached the club.
But Zuber said it was surprising Fontana would be blindsided by the RCMP investigation.
Fontana said he was never approached by the investigators before the charges, but if he had "we could have had a nice little chat."
The light bulb went off later and he remembered the cancelled Goodale reception, he said, "was a commitment made and I submitted the expense" for $1,700 -- the same amount on the wedding contract.
Fontana agreed he used white-out and an eraser on the contract, scribbled on the word "ORIGINAL," probably photocopied it, faxed it to Ottawa and submitted it in March 2005.
Zuber asked if Fontana was "nervous" making the changes to the document. Fontana said he was.
"That's because you knew it was wrong," Zuber said.
"I was creating a new document for a new event," Fontana responded several times.
Zuber suggested Fontana took pains to create a document that would "fool the House of Commons" so he'd be paid. He asked why Fontana didn't just get a bill from the club before submitting the expense.
"Dumb, stupid, yes. I was busy. I made a commitment. Things were harried in Ottawa -- a minority government in the middle of March, didn't know (if it would survive)," he said. "I wanted to make sure I looked after all the paperwork."
Closing arguments are scheduled Thursday.