As the fraud trial of former Woolwich mayor Todd Cowan got underway Monday, the prosecution painted a picture of someone unfamiliar with expense policies who used his township credit card for personal expenses and did not keep atop of the paperwork.
Cowan is charged with fraud and breach of trust this week in relation to double billing some $2,700 in expenses to both the township and Region of Waterloo. He pleaded not guilty.
Lawyer John Mascarin was the first witness called. His firm, Aird & Berlis LLP, was hired by Woolwich and Waterloo Region to investigate Cowan’s expense claims when irregularities came to light in the summer of 2014. Following a review of the expense claims and interviews with those involved, Mascarin’s report laid the blame squarely on Cowan, who admitted to the double billing, calling it a bookkeeping error. Still mayor at the time, he repaid the full amount.
“I originally became involved through a telephone call from the CAO of the Township of Woolwich asking for some advice and some information that they had because of dealing with the former mayor, Todd Cowan,” Mascarin said.
Mascarin and Cowan met on Aug. 7, 2014 at the Woolwich Township administrative building in a board room next to the mayor’s office.
“I had indicated to Mr. Brenneman that I had received the documentary evidence that was provided to me and I had spoken to both financial officers and the clerks and I had a number of questions I wanted to put to Mr. Cowan. I had asked Mr. Brenneman if he could assist in setting up a meeting,” Mascarin said.
Cowan said he didn’t need legal counsel but asked for Brenneman to remain in the room.
Mascarin asked Cowan questions for roughly two hours before Cowan asked him to stop.
“He said he’d like to make a statement at that time, which again surprised me. I wasn’t expecting that. I took out a separate page, and wrote verbatim as best I could,” Mascarin said.
He quotes Cowan as saying, “You have a really thick binder in front of me. I think I know where it’s going.”
Cowan went on to tell Mascarin he wasn’t going to dispute double reimbursements and expense claims.
Mascarin said in his conversation, Cowan said he’s “more of a big picture guy than a detail-oriented person.” He also said he had some difficulties submitting the expense claims at the township, but the regional administrative assistant, Colleen Sargeant, was very efficient.
He says Cowan said he had an administrative assistant at the township but he didn’t use her to submit his expense claims. He said he submitted his township expenses directly to the clerk.
“He indicated he takes things very seriously. He admitted bookkeeping isn’t his forte,” Mascarin said.
He also attributes Cowan to saying, “I’m being irresponsible,” in regards to his record keeping of expenses.
Prosecutor Jennifer Caskie asked Mascarin if he had a conversation with Cowan in regards to his knowledge of expense claim policies.
Mascarin replied that Cowan said he may have read them, but wasn’t certain what they said.
Mascarin had asked Cowan if he was aware the purchases on the township credit card had to be practical and ethical and that they were only appropriate if incurred by a member of council during township business.
“I believe he said ‘that surprises me,’” Mascarin said.
Defense lawyer Thomas Brock argued the policies regarding regional expense claims and township expense claims gave little guidance, especially when Cowan was representing both the township and the region.
“There’s such an overlap of who you’re representing,” Brock said.
He used the example of Cowan meeting with the premier, where they might discuss issues relevant both to the township and the region.
“There’s no guidance who I charge the lunch to in that scenario,” Brock said.
While it’s clear Cowan was reimbursed by both the township and the region for some expenses – which he paid back – in order to be convicted the prosecutor will have to demonstrate that Cowan intentionally filed the same expense claims with both parties.
“You will have to find that the inadvertence was culpable,” Brock said.
Mascarin said it’s his understanding that when Cowan became mayor he asked for and had been granted a corporate credit card. He asked Cowan when he first received it but he was unsure.
A corporate credit card was a first for the township and he was the only council member who received one.
It was supposed to be used for only township business, but when asked if he made personal purchases, Mascarin noted Cowan said he had.
“There were a few instances where his regular credit card would not work and he placed the expenses on the township credit card,” Mascarin said.
Mascarin said he told Cowan the policy at the township as it related to expense claims dictates it only allows reimbursements of expenses while conducting township business. Mascarin stated Cowan said he was “barely aware” of the expense policy at the township, but said he had read the regional expense policy and knew they both applied to him.
“He indicated quite simply that he wasn’t terribly familiar with the policy.”
Set for four days, the trial could wrap up today.