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Gerald Bennett’s sentencing hearing Sept. 3

Laurie Weir, Smiths Falls Record News

A former eastern Ontario fire chief pleaded guilty to charges of theft, fraud and breach of trust Monday July 8 in Brockville criminal court.

Sentencing for Gerald Bennett, 61, of Elgin, who was the chief for the Town of Gananoque with contracted services to the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands (TLTI), will be held Sept. 3.

It was back in 2016 that Bennett was charged with 15 counts of fraud, six counts of uttering forged documents and three counts of breach of trust.

Shelley Fournier, chief administrative officer of Gananoque, who was the former director of corporate services for the Town of Perth before leaving for the new position in Gananoque in 2015, spoke with the Record News on Wednesday, July 10, about the court case.

Fournier said she spearheaded the investigation, uncovering schemes and going through fake invoices and providing those findings to the OPP’s anti-rackets unit. Through searching Bennett’s emails, she found invoices from people to whom Bennett was selling the town’s products — including Lanark Highlands, BBD & E and Arnprior fire departments.

“It was a very difficult time, realizing it wasn’t just one transgression. It was over a number of years and a number of different ways he was doing it — creating fake invoices, selling town property to other fire departments.”

Fournier said Bennett sold analogue pagers to these other departments at a reduced rate with cheques made out to the fire association, not the town, who owned the property.

“All the revenue wasn’t coming to the town,” she said. “The town doesn’t have access to the association’s books. Once we saw one invoice from Arnprior that the fire association expensed them, I asked the association for their books and that’s when it really unfolded. The money that was coming in was being turned over to Gerry (monthly).”

According to Bennett’s lawyer, Joshua Clarke of Armoured Suits: Criminal Defence Lawyers, who was contacted by the Record News, Bennett “has apologized for his actions, explained how embarrassed he was and how he hopes to be forgiven.”

Bennett has been in counselling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Clarke said.

“He started counselling around the time he was suspended in 2016. Diagnosed with PTSD related to work traumas — seeing people die. Has been following treatment since,” Clarke noted.

Bennett’s restitution includes payback to the township in the amount of $11,240.75; to the town $13,733.70 and to the firefighters’ association in the amount of $20,699.50, for a total $45,673.95.

THE INVESTIGATION

The investigation into charges against Bennett began in 2016, and Fournier said Monday, July 8 was a day of closure.

“It was exhausting for sure. It started back in September 2016 when we became aware of it,” she said. “I’m relieved that the matter has finally concluded … I think I was the only one that has seen this thing through from beginning to end. With the election, the turnover in council, in the township a different chief administrative officer, different mayor, treasurer … “

Fournier provided a victim impact statement in the case, which she shared with this newspaper.

“From an emotional standpoint, that’s very difficult when you’ve got diehard Gerry supporters, and Gerry himself maintaining his innocence and because of his influence in the community and the number of people that he knew, and he had touched over the years, unfortunately, it turned negatively toward the town. It was a witch hunt and a ruse we set up … those were all the things that were coming at us,” she said.

There were people shouting at her across the street, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Along with the jeers at council meetings, shunning and dirty looks and of course we had to maintain confidentiality,” which she said was the hardest part for her knowing that these allegations against the town were untrue.

“Monday was a day of reckoning. It was the opportunity to speak and let the truth be told. And of course, by him pleading guilty, he recognized he was guilty of all these (charges),” Fournier said.

As a member of the senior management team, Fournier said she placed a lot of trust in Bennett. “We’re that group that essentially runs the town. Your emergency fire service, fire chief, is in a position of public trust.”

The town and township collectively met with OPP after the township treasurer identified a fraudulent invoice with a logo from a local business regarding a part for a fire truck. When the fake logo was created, it was obvious to the treasurer that it did not belong to the business.

“That’s really what brought the whole thing down,” Fournier said. “Once we saw this, we really started to look deeper.”

Fournier said they hired their own forensic investigator, who asked for suppliers to reproduce their invoices to compare to the ones given to them by Bennett.

“When invoices come through, (daily) they look legitimate,” she said. “There is no red flag on them at all.”

Input was sought from the town’s auditor to seek ways in which to tighten up their system.

“There is nothing the municipality can do short of asking for duplicate invoices … which would bring transactions to a … snail’s pace. When you have a person of that much seniority making purchases saying these invoices are accurate, that’s where the breach of trust is.”

Bennett was an employee of the town, with services contracted to the township. He was placed on paid-administrative leave in September 2016 and fired in November. There are now two full-time fire chiefs for the town and the township respectively — Steve Tiernan in Gananoque, and Rick Lawson in TLTI.

As for a dual role for one chief, Fournier said they’re a little hesitant to get back into that relationship.”

There was a shock wave that went through both departments, she said.

“These guys put their lives on the line for us. They’re a brotherhood. And the difficulty for me was that I wasn’t able to tell the brotherhood what he’d done, and because he was so important to them and such a figurehead for them, it was really difficult for them to understand what was happening. And it really did pit believers and non-believers within both organizations against each other. Even until Monday (July 8), he had all kinds of people in the courtroom — friends and family that came as supporters. That’s not over.”

Fournier said she sees the township and the town moving forward in a positive direction.

“I just think we should close the book on this one,” she said. “Emergency services are so important. We really need to have a good working relationship with one another.”

Fournier not only has a deep connection to this professionally, but on a personal level she’s married to a retired fire chief, Steve Fournier, who was the Perth chief for many years before retiring in 2016. He then moved to an interim chief position for the Township of Rideau Lakes, a role he no longer holds. Currently, he is the reeve in Drummond North Elmsley Township. He was acclaimed during the 2018 municipal election.

“Because my husband is a retired fire chief, I hold the position in such high regard,” Fournier said. “I think it hurt me more than what most CAOs would feel. I don’t want this one individual to reflect badly on the legacy my husband had, or the legacy of other fire chiefs across Ontario.”