Former Woolwich mayor Todd Cowan was convicted of breach of trust Wednesday morning in a Kitchener courtroom.
Justice Michael Epstein found him not guilty of fraud in relation to expense claims submitted when he was a public official.
Cowan faces sentencing for the breach of trust charge on July 18.
Cowan was charged with fraud and breach of trust on Feb. 6 of last year after an investigation from the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch unveiled that Cowan had submitted the same expenses twice, to both the township and the Region of Waterloo. He served as Woolwich’s representative on regional council.
Epstein noted they found 14 cases of double reimbursement for meals, mileage, and conferences he attended between 2012 and 2014.
He was doubly reimbursed for more than $2,700, which he paid back after the issue came to light, claiming it was his own accounting error.
When handing out his verdict on Wednesday, Epstein said he found that the number of instances where Cowan was doubly reimbursed to be relatively small compared to the hundreds he had submitted, totaling about $10,000 from the township and $14,000 from the region.
Epstein said he was “far from satisfied” that Cowan had intentionally committed fraud and found him not guilty. He also noted that comments made by Cowan when presented with the double reimbursement allegations showed he took responsibility for his poor recordkeeping, advising “he had no proper bookkeeping system.”
“I am forced to a different conclusion for count number two,” Epstein said, speaking about the breach of trust charge.
Epstein said it was clear Cowan knew the expense claims policies for both the township and the region did not allow him to expense meals for his girlfriend, and that he had “improperly indicated he dined with peers when he did not.”
Cowan’s first scheduled appearance at the Ontario Court of Justice was on Mar. 3, 2015, where his lawyer Thomas Brock appeared on his behalf.
Brock informed the judge in court on July 21 that he had attempted to contact Cowan some 30 times to remind him he was required to make that court date, but was a no show even when the clerk paged him to the courtroom.
Justice of the Peace Zeljana Radulovic agreed with Brock there were grounds to issue an arrest warrant due to Cowan’s lack of communication, which she issued.
Brock also asked to be taken off the case, but later changed his mind.
The case could not move forward by setting a trial date until Cowan made an appearance.
He turned himself into the Waterloo Region Courthouse in Kitchener on July 24 at 9 a.m., after the Woolwich Observer reported an arrest warrant had been issued for him.
He was held in court custody until the afternoon bail hearing, where he was released after agreeing to pay $1,000 and with the promise to attend his next court date on Aug. 11 to set the trial date.
Brock appeared on his behalf on Aug. 11 and told the judge Cowan had asked for a trial before a judge. He was also given an Oct. 26 court date to answer to his failure to appear charge for missing the July 24 court date.
And when Oct. 26 rolled around, Cowan was nowhere to be found, causing Judge Gary Hearn to issue Cowan’s second arrest warrant.
Brock informed the judge he had called, left voicemails, and written letters to Cowan trying to reach him at least 49 times – every day since he had last seen him – with no luck.
Cowan turned himself in to the courthouse later that afternoon, with Brock staying on as counsel and Cowan scheduled to appear on Nov. 4.
He showed up on Nov. 4 to answer to his previous two failure to appear charges and to confirm his trial date of Nov. 23-26. They cancelled the Nov. 24 trial date for Brock to be with his wife while she underwent surgery, expecting three days to be enough, but they found they needed the fourth day.
The last day of trial was scheduled for Feb. 29.
Cowan was present for every day of trial, but Brock indicated Cowan was not expected to speak on his behalf.
Lawyer John Mascarin took the stand, as his firm, Aird & Berlis LLP, was hired by Woolwich and Waterloo Region to investigate Cowan’s expense claims after the issue was brought forward by a citizen’s freedom of information request.
Mascarin’s report put the blame on Cowan.
The two met on Aug. 7, 2014 at the Woolwich Township administrative building.
Cowan didn’t request legal counsel at the time, but asked CAO David Brenneman to stay in the room. Mascarin testified he questioned Cowan for 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.
He also attributes Cowan with saying, “I’m being irresponsible,” in regards to his recordkeeping of expenses.
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 during township business.
“I believe he said ‘that surprises me,’” Mascarin said.
The defense argued Cowan often represented both the township and the region at events and it was unclear which to expense it to.
It’s clear Cowan was reimbursed by both the township and the region for some expenses, but in order to be convicted the prosecutor had to show Cowan intentionally filed the same expense claims with both parties, intending to be doubly reimbursed.
It was also often noted that Cowan is not a detail-oriented person and not exactly organized.
He asked for a corporate credit card when he became mayor and received it, a first for the township.
Other witnesses indicated at least three receipts that Cowan claimed were for meals he had with them, were indeed false.
Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris testified that an expense claim that Cowan had submitted for Aug. 17, 2013 for $44.34 with a handwritten notation with the name Harris, was not reflective of a meal the two shared.
“Did you have that meeting with Mr. Cowan?” asked prosecutor Jennifer Caskie.
“I did not,” Harris replied.
She asked Harris about another meal receipt Cowan submitted, but for breakfast of $35.44.
“No I wasn’t even in Ottawa at that time. I didn’t get there until Sunday,” Harris replied.
She asked Harris if he ever had a meal with Cowan.
“I had breakfast one morning in the same restaurant, but not together. I don’t believe we ever dined together,” Harris said.
He said he believed Cowan was with his girlfriend at the time when he saw him at the restaurant.
The meals were supposed to have happened at the 2013 Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in Ottawa that they both attended.
Ronald Earl Foster Eddy, mayor of Brant County, also took the stand in relation to a breakfast receipt Cowan had expensed with a handwritten notation that looked like R. Eddy. It was from Aug. 20, 2013 for $61.37 for two breakfast buffets at Daly’s in the Westin in Ottawa.
“Did you have that meal?” Caskie asked.
“I have no recollection of having had that meal,” Eddy answered, noting he’s not in the habit of attending breakfasts.
Former Woolwich councillor Bonnie Bryant also testified in regards to two meals Cowan expensed where his girlfriend was present, but he had written a different name on the receipt.
The fourth and final day of trial finished on Feb. 29 with Caskie finishing her closing arguments by reminding the judge of the documents Cowan falsified, which the defense claims was inadvertent.
“The evidence is damning,” Caskie said.
She noted the only expense claims that Cowan submitted with notations are the ones that witnesses testified were incorrect.
“He knew he was benefitting and hoped he wouldn’t be found out,” Caskie said.
Brock asserted his client was overwhelmed and unorganized.
“His error resulted from inadvertence, error resulted from lack of organization, error resulted from perhaps too much on his plate, error resulted from lack of experience. His error resulted from perhaps personal things going on his life. But not error resulting from a fraudulent type of act. He wasn’t trying to be deceitful. He wasn’t trying to be dishonest,” Brock said.
Justice Epstein will sentence Cowan on July 18.