Township bill tops $310,000 as French case carries on
Lawyer Phil Horgan, centre, answers questions outside a Barrie courtroom. AWARE Simcoe photo
By Kate Harries AWARE News Network
Former Springwater mayor Bill French was in court yesterday on 10 charges of breaching the Municipal Elections Act, in a case that has cost the township’s taxpayers more than $310,000 so far.
For around 40 people who turned out to support French or observe proceedings, this third appearance was another long wait in Barrie Provincial Offences court, followed by nothing new.
Among those in attendance was former Springwater mayor Linda Collins, who was defeated by French in 2014.
French and his lawyer Phil Horgan went into the chambers of the presiding justice of the peace for a pretrial conference with lawyer Angela Severson, from the Kingston firm that’s retained to prosecute the case. After about an hour, they returned, merely to set another date – April 17 2019.
Outside the courtroom where a small crowd had gathered, Horgan said he could not divulge details of the pre-trial discussion, which touched on the merits of the case, procedural issues and possible resolution. The outcome is that “we would appear back in court (either) to deal with the charges or deal with the process to get it resolved,” Horgan said.
As the case drags on, figures obtained through a Freedom of Information application reveal that the cost to Springwater Township has risen by $100,000 over the last year, to a total of $311,633.
Notable among the 2018 expenses is $64,075 for the second forensic audit, that the Oro-Medonte-Springwater Compliance Audit Committee commissioned from Froese Forensic Partners when it felt dissatisfied with the first, by Grant Thornton (which cost $12,860).
This expensive exercise started with a complaint from former deputy mayor Dan McLean, defeated in the 2014 election, who retained Bay Street lawyer Jack Siegel to represent him.
At Siegel’s urging, compliance audit committee members – Robert Barlow, Colin McLarty and George Wodoslawsky – chose not to use the township’s lawyer and instead retained a Toronto lawyer, Jody Johnson, at a cost over four years of $149,659.
McLean’s complaint included allegations that French under-reported the rental value of his campaign office, failed to declare his full printing costs, benefited from improper support from AWARE Simcoe, and was favoured over other candidates by the Springwater News.
All these allegations were found to be baseless by the two successive audits, which both came up with similar findings, the last one identifying a total of $1,091 in apparent non-compliances by French in his 2014 election financial statements.
These apparent non-compliances were characterized by the forensic auditor as mainly book-keeping errors that did not indicate any intent to conceal or gain an unfair advantage (see the Justice for Bill French website for full details). French’s expenditures were more than $5,000 under his spending limit.
Yesterday, Horgan noted that Springwater Township Council met in camera last month to discuss French’s prosecution.
“Which is curious because you’re not supposed to have any involvement in these things as a political council, it’s supposed to be left to the compliance audit committee, the status of which … is what we call legally functus, it’s no longer existing as of November 30, 2018.”
Sandy Buxton, president of the Midhurst Ratepayers Association, told Horgan she had discussed the matter with Don Allen, the current mayor, who had told her “they believe they (council) couldn’t do anything and they can’t say anything.”
Horgan said he disagreed, adding “the only reason they can’t talk about anything is because they put all the meetings in camera.”
Several French supporters expressed frustration that many in Springwater believe that he is the cause of the problem.
Minesing resident Sean Delaney said that canvassers for Allen came to his house twice during the campaign last fall. “The only singular issue they brought to my attention each time they came to my door was the amount of money Bill French had cost the taxpayers.”
Delaney added that that close to half the voting population voted for French and he believes the other half doesn’t know the truth of the compliance audit saga “and they need to know.”
French lost by 82 votes out of 5,903 ballots cast.
Horgan was asked if he could put French’s case forward to be vindicated in the press.
He said it would be unwise for him to litigate the case in the media.
But he did answer a number of questions, including:
-Are the costs to the township covered by insurance?
“No, insurance kicks in if the township is being sued for something. This was instigated by the township.”
-Who’s giving direction to the prosecutor?
“The people who are paying the bills (the township) normally give the instructions. I’m talking legally, they’re responsible for the actions of their lawyers.”
-Is the township obligated to carry on funding the case?
“The township’s lawyer expects to be paid. It is up to the township to decide whether it needs to proceed. For example, it could stand down, if they think it’s a frivolous case.”
And then French, who is paying for his lawyer personally, cut in to call an end to the discussion. “Your clock is running,” he told Horgan, to the amusement of bystanders.
Kate Harries is a member of AWARE Simcoe, which endorsed Bill French for mayor in 2014, and of the Justice for Bill French committee.