'They still haven't solved it,' accused fraudster tells Sudbury jury

Lawyers in the $24 million Atlas Copco fraud trial are getting their last chance to make their case to a Sudbury jury.

2 of the 4 men involved in alleged benefits overbilling scheme have already confessed

It's alleged the $24 million fraud scheme was run by employees at Atlas Copco's Sudbury office in the Walden Industrial Park. (Erik White/CBC)

Lawyers in the $24 million Atlas Copco fraud trial are getting their last chance  to make their case to a Sudbury jury this week.

After 38 days of testimony and thousands of pages of financial documents, the final arguments in the largest fraud trial in the city's history began on Monday morning with Paul Caron, a 72-year-old Montreal insurance broker acting as his own lawyer.

"I should be enjoying retirement, but I've been fighting this for eight years and frankly I ran out of money," Caron told the jury.

One by one, he targeted his accusers from Atlas Copco to the Sudbury Crown Attorney to the confessed fraudsters who say he was part of their scheme to overbill the company for health benefits and pocket the difference.
Montreal insurance broker Paul Caron, 72, is charged with defrauding Atlas Copco, but maintains he never stole any money. (Erik White/CBC )

Caron said the Crown and its investigators made a "fatal error" in misunderstanding documents that was "like mixing an apple, an orange and a lemon together" and that "pride stood in the way" of the prosecutors finding the truth.

In particular, Caron questioned the qualifications of the forensic auditor hired by the Crown to work on the case, saying he "did a report to please the people who were paying him."

"They still haven't solved it. We've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. You would be in total shock to see how much has been spent here and they still haven't figured it out," Caron told the court.

"He concocted a story that affected our lives. We lost everything."

He theorized that the case only moved to Sudbury because Atlas Copco needed a criminal conviction so it could submit an insurance claim for the $24 million alleged to have been stolen.

Caron also saved some words in his closing arguments for the two former Atlas Copco employees who have confessed to stealing money from the company and who both testified for the Crown.

Montreal-based human resources manager Leo Caron, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison, was described by Paul Caron as an unreliable witness due to his bipolar disease. 

Paul Caron also accused former Sudbury financial manager David Hillier, who returned the $400,000 he says he stole, of lying to investigators in order to be spared being put on trial himself.

"He concocted a story that affected our lives. We lost everything," Caron said.

"Your conscience will be offended forever"

The other man on trial is Dirk Plate, also 72, who was general manager of the company's Sudbury office during the early 2000s when it's alleged that Atlas Copco was billed $32 million for its employee benefits program, when the actual cost was closer to $7 million.

His lawyer, Ralph Steinberg, says Dirk Plate believed the retirement savings annuity that Leo Caron set up for him was legitimate and says there is no documented evidence to suggest he was involved in the scheme.

"There's no paper trail leading to Dirk Plate. Why isn't there even a part of a paper trail? Some e-mail cryptically phrased?" Steinberg asked the jury.

The only evidence was given by David Hillier who testified  that he was called into a meeting with Leo Caron and Plate to set up the fraud, but Steinberg called Leo Caron and Hillier "unsavoury and disreputable" men who were "highly motivated to save their own skins." 

Steinberg also told the jury repeatedly that Plate has cooperated with investigators from day one, tried to hide nothing and chose to take the stand and put himself through a "gruelling, days long" cross examination by the crown.

He also had some pointed words for Assistant Crown Attorney Philip Zylberberg, saying the prosecutors aim is to "stretch or strain the facts to get you to believe his theory."

Steinberg told the jury if they have any "lingering doubts" about the Crown's case, they have to acquit the accused, or be haunted for years by unjustly taking away someone's freedom.

"Your conscience will be offended forever," he said.

Steinberg is expected to finish his summation today, followed by the closing arguments of assistant Crown Attorney Philip Zylberberg.

Once he's done, the case will be handed to the jury. Fourteen Sudburians have spent the last two months in the courtroom, as a couple of spares are chosen just in case of illness. Before the deliberations begin, the final 12 will be selected randomly and they will ultimately decide the fate of these two men.