In response to COVID-19, the Department of Justice responded by offering safe, alternative options to in-person trials under various circumstances.
In Quebec, when the pandemic disrupted life in Canada in March 2020, non-urgent legal cases were postponed while urgent matters continued in person at courthouses (with increased health, safety and physical-distancing measures put in place). In a May press conference, Justice Minister Sonia Lebel announced the reopening of courts in June but said virtual courtrooms will continue, even after the pandemic subsides. She said different types of arrangements will be possible through the province’s criminal justice system.
“Access to justice and well-functioning justice and court systems are fundamental to a just and fair Canadian society. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges that have impacted the Canadian justice system. To address these challenges, Justice Canada is taking action to support Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”Department of Justice
One of these concessions is virtual hearings, which make it possible for judges to hear certain matters without requiring parties to be physically present at the courthouse. Some hearings are held in semi-virtual courtrooms, meaning one or several participants authorized by the court are present in the physical courthouse while others attend remotely. Virtual or semi-virtual hearings can be accessed through a secure internet platform with a computer, laptop, tablet, smartphone or video conferencing system.
These such cases are becoming more prevalent. One such example is the case of R v. Accurso, where defendants cited health concerns related to COVID-19 as reasons for virtually attending trial.
In November, the RCMP charged a second CRA employee with taking a bribe from Quebec construction magnate Tony Accurso. Accurso, 69, allegedly transferred money from his companies to Swiss bank accounts in an effort to hide revenue and to have then bribed the CRA auditors to avoid paying taxes on revenue he had generated through his companies, Simard-Beaudry Constructions and Constructions Louisbourg.
Accurso and the two CRA employees—Antonio Girardi, 56, and Adriano Furgiuele, 52—as well as two other men—Francesco Bruno and Antonio Girardi—face five charges each, including fraud, forgery, breach of trust of a public official, conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to commit perjury and conspiracy to commit breach of trust.
The Prosecution alleges that Accurso and Bruno participated in a complex tax evasion scheme, issuing false invoices to transfer money from legitimate corporations to shell corporations. The money was then transferred from the shell corporations to offshore bank accounts and used to corrupt Furgiuele and Girardi (CRA agents). The sixth man involved in the case is Francesco Fiorino, a chartered accountant. He is not believed to have been involved in the tax evasion scheme but the prosecution argues he and Bruna facilitated the execution of the plan of action set up to sidestep a CRA audit of the shell corporation.
The accused were first charged in 2012 in Project Coche, an investigation led by the RCMP into allegations of widespread corruption at the CRA’s offices in downtown Montreal. Their trial started on Jan. 4 and expected to last about three months. It began with Quebec Court Judge Mélanie Hébert hearing a series of motions. Eight investigators from the RCMP and CRA are among 75 witnesses called by the Crown to testify about search warrants carried out in 2008 and 2009 at the businesses and homes of some of the accused.
Absence requested due to financial concerns
Citing financial concerns, Fiorino made an effort to streamline the trial and was willing to admit to 90 per cent of the admissions sought by the prosecution. Accurso and Bruno refused so the trial stood. So, on Jan. 7, Fiorino requested to be absent from the anticipated three-month trial. The court granted this request.
Requesting virtual court presence due to COVID-19:
Then, on Jan. 25, Bruno and Furgiuele sought the Court’s permission to be physically absent from the trial pursuant to section 650 (2) of the Criminal Code, while seeking the Court’s permission to attend and participate in their trial by the videoconferencing system “Teams”.
Bruno suffers from serious health issues. According to his doctor, “Bruno exhibits at least four risk factors that place him at a very high risk of having severe disease sequelae if he becomes infected with Covid-19”.
Though he does not suffer from any serious health issues, Furgiuele also expressed the wish to stay home and limit his contacts with others.
The Prosecution did not oppose this request.
More to come as the trial continues. Stay up to date with all your Canadian Fraud News by subscribing to our weekly e-newsletter.