The RCMP has formally charged Mayor Joe Fontana.
Fontana is facing three charges, laid by the RCMP on Wednesday (Nov. 21), related to allegations he used government cheques to pay for his son’s wedding reception seven years ago while he was serving as the MP for London North Centre.
Fontana was charged with fraud under $5,000, uttering forged documents and breach of trust by a public official by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Members of city council reacted to the news with a combination of disappointment and resignation.
“I’m not surprised. The longer time passed, the more disconcerting it became. You start to think about what is really going on, and this certainly was an option,” said Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler. “In terms of the seriousness of these charges, this is a very dark day.”
Those thoughts were reinforced by Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe who has been perhaps more vocal than anyone else about the need for Fontana to step down as mayor.
“It is a terrible day for London and I don’t know how he could possibly come back now, work on the budget, and say everything is hunky dory with these very serious charges against him,” Branscombe said. “He should do the right thing, should before Monday. And if he doesn’t, all of council should be unified in asking him to step aside.”
Fontana was released on a promise to appear in court in London on Jan. 8, 2013.
The charges are related to a $1,700 Public Works cheque used to pay a deposit for a wedding reception for Fontana’s son in 2005. At the time he was serving as federal minister of labour and housing.
Following the start of the RCMP investigation in October, Fontana said “I will deal with the facts and authenticated documents in a timely manner and with all due diligence. I am confident a thorough and fair review will clearly demonstrate all transactions were proper and valid.”
A few days later, Fontana retained high-profile London lawyer Gordon Cudmore to represent him. On the advice of his counsel, Fontana hasn’t spoken to the allegations except through statements on his personal website.
Despite pressure from the community and some council members to step down as mayor, Fontana posted a statement on Nov. 19 saying he had no intention of stepping down.
“Make no mistake, I treat the allegations that have been levied as serious, but I have not and will not allow them to be a distraction from my duties and obligations of my office.”
Fontana will hold a press conference at his lawyer’s office on Thursday (Nov 22) at 1 p.m. where he will address the charges and his political future. None of these charges have been proven in a court of law.
Ward 8 Councillor Paul Hubert who was prepared to second a motion suggested by Branscombe last month to ask the mayor to temporarily step down, said his first thought was that of the Fontana family.
“I think first of all it is a sad day for Mr. Fontana and his family. I think, after many, many years of public service, to have charges laid against him must be very disappointing and traumatic for him and his family,” Hubert said. “Secondly, it is a sad day for the city of London.”
Hubert said London has had mayors who have stood on the “basis of integrity and on principal” and so these charges have “sullied (the office of the mayor) in this way is very disappointing.”
Baechler, Hubert and Branscombe all said the charges should force Fontana to reconsider his plans to stay in office. In fact, Branscombe was quite clear what should happen next.
“We were elected to represent the people of London, not Joe Fontana. I believe in due process, I won’t presume anything, but I still believe anyone, police officer, medical official, while they are under investigation, while they do what they need to do, they step aside,” Branscombe said. “It has been a pretty big surprise to many of us that there was no mechanism in place to make this happen. I just don’t believe he has any choice at this point.”
Ward 3 Councillor Joe Swan said he would encourage his colleagues “to stay calm, stay focused on the business of the people, we have a lot of work to do.” Swan said a lot of what happens next depends on what Fontana says and does at his press conference.
In the meantime, Swan was clear with his perception of the situation.
“City council is not the police, we aren’t the jury. I think any member of council has to deal with these serious allegations. The police had a job to do and now it seems to be off to the courts,” Swan said. “As to his own personal role at council, I think I have been consistent on this, he must decide what he is going to do. It is his decision and his alone.”