by Suzanne Gammon
For nearly two years, Steve Morrison of MX Constructors has been embroiled in a legal battle with the Municipality of West Nipissing, with the town accusing him of overbilling for various work and equipment, to the tune of over $200,000. In Sept. 2016, his troubles intensified as criminal charges were added to the civil pursuit. Last Tuesday, Morrison ended the fight with a guilty plea in the Ontario Court of Justice in North Bay, and an offer to pay $75,000 in restitution to the town.
The case had been set to be heard Feb. 5, 2018, but was moved up because of the plea. Morrison pleaded guilty to one count of fraud over $5,000 and one count of uttering forged documents, and was sentenced to six months of house arrest by Justice Lawrence Klein. Additional charges, including a second count of fraud over $5,000, fraud on government and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence, were withdrawn.
A publication ban was placed on evidence presented in court, so as not to compromise the hearings set for the other two parties co-accused in the matter. Former town employees Marc Gagnon and Luc Rifou are scheduled to appear for preliminary inquiry in the Ontario Court of Justice on Feb. 5; they each face two counts of fraud over $5,000, breach of trust, fraud on government, conspiracy to commit an indictable offence and uttering forged documents. The two were terminated by the Municipality of West Nipissing in January 2016 after town administrators discovered “financial irregularities” and launched an independent investigation. In statements of claim in the civil cases against Morrison and MX Constructors, and in a counterclaim against Rifou’s claim for wrongful termination, the town alleged the former director and manager of their Public Works department had approved payments to supplier MX Constructors for work that was either incomplete or not performed, and submitted two invoices for work that was in fact meant to pay for a Durapatcher machine transferred to the town.
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Over the past several months, MX Constructors has seen its contracts and revenues dwindle and has had to lay off most of its staff, going from over 60 employees to just 12. The company moved its head office from a commercial building on King Street to Morrison’s home, and has been focusing on a residential development to stay afloat. Approximately three weeks before the plea, Morrison told the Tribune that he could not afford to keep up the legal fight, which was costing him over $25k per month, and he was considering giving up the battle as it was causing him great stress. “I can’t keep this up, I’m not sleeping, my health is affected and there’s no way I can win because it will just drag on and on and I’ll be broke before there’s ever a resolution,” he had stated.
Morrison’s business and volunteerism in the community were taken into account by Justice Klein in determining the sentence, as he noted the accused had been “providing a lot of volunteer hours and work for his community,” and a home sentence would allow him to keep operating the business and employing people. Among his volunteer work, it was noted Morrison had served as chair of the WN Police Services Board, a position he vacated following the criminal charges last Fall.
The judge noted that the admission of guilt would be “a significant fall from grace” for the man once considered a community leader. “No matter how good a guy you are, people are going to see Steve Morrison as a thief,” he told the contractor.
In a subsequent interview with the Tribune, Crown attorney Russ Wood said both he and Defense lawyer Mitch Eisen had recommended the six-month sentence in a joint submission to the judge. “The judge was prepared to accede to the recommendation based on the amount of restitution, based on the fact that he had no prior criminal record and based on the fact that Mr. Morrison had a pretty exemplary civic record before this,” he noted. He stressed that house arrest is often recommended in cases where the accused is not considered a danger to society, and Morrison “fit the bill” as he is “not a threat.”