Atlas Copco fraud trial: Crown's star witness grilled by former colleagues
Defence suggests two men on trial are innocent and the guilty have already confessed
A former Atlas Copco accountant who helped steal $24 million from the company is painting himself as an employee just following directions, while the defence suggests he played a larger role in the fraud scheme.
David Hillier was the finance manager at the company's Sudbury, Ont. office between 2002 and 2006 and has admitted to personally taking over $400,000, which he has since returned.
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Hillier is the only one of the four alleged co-conspirators to not be charged, because he has agreed to testify against his former boss Dirk Plate and Montreal insurance broker Paul Caron.
Caron is representing himself in court, so he was able to personally question Hillier in court on Thursday.
He accused Hillier of telling lies to police investigators, which implicated him in a benefits-overbilling scheme that he described as an "internal Atlas Copco problem."
"You concocted a story, sir. Now's the time to tell the truth," Caron said to Hillier in court.
"Now's the time to clear this up, man."
"I can't," answered Hillier.
"You can't, eh? Isn't that a shame," said Caron.
Personal debt owed?
The court heard that, just before coming to Sudbury in 2002, Hillier had suddenly lost his job in Arizona, and was looking for a way to support his wife and newborn son.
He was re-hired by Atlas Copco, after making contact with Montreal-based human resources manager Leo Caron. Hillier had previously worked with Leo Caron at Atlas Copco in the 1990s.
"Did you feel you owed something to Leo Caron for putting this together for you? You must have felt a little indebted to him?" Paul Caron asked.
"I can't answer that," Hillier said.
"But knowing Leo Caron, he would eventually collect on that debt," Paul Caron continued.
"I can't answer that," Hillier repeated.
Hillier testified that it was Leo Caron who called him into an office, shortly after he started work in Sudbury, to lay the groundwork for the over-billing scheme.
He told the court that he suggested ways to hide the money from higher-ups at Atlas Copco, but said he was only following the lead of his two bosses — Leo Caron and Dirk Plate.
Leo Caron was charged with fraud in 2012, and pleaded guilty the following year. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Kickback or pension contribution?
During his cross-examination of Hillier, Paul Caron spoke of what he believes actually happened with this money at Atlas Copco.
He said it was common for the company to fill in gaps in the pension plan by purchasing annuities, a form of retirement investment, for its employees. That's why Hillier received the $400,000 and why Plate had an annuity worth over $1 million.
"The thing I believe you didn't know is they went to the purchase of annuities to close the gap," Paul Caron said, then asked if Hillier "considered those to be kickbacks."
"Yes," Hillier replied.
"Not a contribution to your annuity?"
"No," Hillier said.
Paul Caron also said he believes that the fraud was carried out by Leo Caron and David Hillier alone and that himself and Plate, the two men currently on trial, are innocent.
"Are you willing to consider the possibility?" Paul Caron asked.
"I can't answer that," Hillier said.
"Sir, there isn't much that you've answered," Paul Caron said.
Ralph Steinberg, the Toronto lawyer defending Plate, also cross-examined Hillier on Thursday.
He targeted Hillier's foggy memory about when this initial meeting to discuss the fraud. The meeting was said to have taken place in Dirk Plate's Sudbury office in the fall of 2002, suggesting that Plate was likely in Montreal, Que. at the time.
Steinberg also repeatedly questioned Hillier about his motivation to join a criminal conspiracy to defraud his employer, just weeks after starting a new job and moving his young family to Sudbury.
"Were you not afraid of jeopardizing your job?" Steinberg asked.
"Things, again, were coming at me so fast," Hillier said. "I should have put everything together, but I didn't."
The trial is scheduled to continue for several more weeks before the jury makes a ruling.