SISO $4-million fraud investigation started with an employee of the organization going to police
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Author: Joan Walters
Source: The Spectator / Hamilton, September 7, 2013, p. A1
Original title: The whistle blower: An 18-month police investigation into a $4-million fraud at an agency meant to help newcomers to Canada began with one immigrant quietly raising his hand
Marius Carciumaru was worried as he headed to the Mountain police station on a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 2010.
The SISO computer expert was carrying the two hard drives he’d secretly lifted as evidence from his bosses’ offices and hidden in his garage.
Meeting up with six colleagues at the Rymal Road station as planned, Carciumaru wasn’t sure how police would react when he explained why he was there.
On orders from his CEO, and supervised by his finance director, Carciumaru had altered official records – cheques, payroll stubs, bank statements – at the Hamilton refugee agency where he worked.
The Romanian immigrant knew it was wrong to manipulate documents and he didn’t know what would happen to him when he told police.
The six senior managers from the Settlement and Immigration Services Organization had a better understanding than Carciumaru of why the forgeries were being done.
They were at the station to tell police they believed CEO Morteza Jafarpour and finance director Ahmed (Robert) Salama were scamming the government.
It would later be confirmed by police – and then a jury – that Jafarpour and Salama were conspiring together in a sophisticated fraud. They were scooping money from the millions of dollars in public funds that Citizenship and Immigration Canada gave SISO every year.
In 2010, that federal contribution was $13 million.
To cover up, SISO had submitted false payroll stubs, bogus invoices and other altered documentation to CIC to make it appear the skimmed-off money had gone for legitimate costs to help newcomers to Canada settle in Hamilton – which was SISO’s job.
The SISO fraud amounted to at least $4 million from 2008 to 2010, the police investigation showed. And it led to the collapse of the once respected organization, leaving 155 employees jobless and stranding hundreds of immigrants and refugees.
Carciumaru was apprehensive when he entered the station that November day. Even though he’d been ordered to do the forgeries, he was afraid for himself and his family. He thought he’d be arrested. He worried he might lose his house.
“He’s new to Canada,” said Detective Duncan McCulloch, the Hamilton fraud squad officer called in from vacation to meet with the SISO employees that day.
“His experience with police in other jurisdictions was if you were a witness and telling the government something bad, you’re going to jail.”
Carciumaru – encouraged by the SISO managers – had brought the lifted hard drives with him as part of that day’s plan. The background was that after months of forgeries, Jafarpour had asked Carciumaru to meet him at a Tim Hortons on the Mountain and ordered him to get rid of all evidence of doctored documents.
Carciumaru did replace the hard drive in Jafarpour’s computer, but kept the old one, hoping to preserve evidence of the CEO’s wrongdoing. He later told the jury he was aware the hard drives might help him protect himself. He also copied the contents of Salama’s computer onto a portable hard drive and put both devices in his garage.
McCulloch well remembers that Saturday, described to him by phone as a “fraud emergency” when the group walked into the station unannounced.
“We knew nothing about SISO,” McCulloch recalled in an interview this week.
“It was hard to pin down exactly what was a criminal offence and what were concerns about immoral behaviour or impropriety.”
There was a lot of talking and not much fact.
Finally, McCulloch asked: “Who here has information they need to tell me now?”
And that’s when Marius Carciumaru hesitantly put up his hand.
That act of offering to tell on his bosses triggered the investigation – beginning with the hard drives – that led to convictions for Jafarpour and Salama on charges of conspiracy to defraud the Canadian government and uttering forged documents this week.
Carciumaru was not charged.
He became a key Crown witness, riveting the jury of seven men and five women who rendered their guilty verdict this week. Carciumaru’s testimony also left the 35-year-old computer expert open to questions about his motive. The judge raised that issue in his charge to the jury as they began deliberations.
Justice James Ramsay said Carciumaru “admitted taking part in a dishonest activity” that could have got him into trouble with the law, and could have given him a motive to point the finger elsewhere to stay out of trouble himself.
During his testimony, Carciumaru broke down briefly as he told of trying to alert someone inside SISO, including the board of directors, to what was going on. His last attempt to work inside the organization was a distraught email to board chair Hussein Hamdani five days before he went to police.
Carciumaru testified he had also told Hamdani briefly in person about what he’d been asked to do, prompting the judge and the Crown to question the board chair over his failure to tell police. Hamdani testified he didn’t have evidence, or even know what Carciumaru meant by altering a document.
“I don’t understand why (you) a lawyer wouldn’t ask the police to investigate the allegation of a crime,” Ramsay told Hamdani when the SISO board chair appeared in court.
McCulloch said police interviewed a number of SISO directors during the investigation, but there was “no evidence that came forward of criminal responsibility tied to the members of the board of directors.”
For McCulloch, seconded to the 18-month RCMP probe into the SISO fraud, there is an enduring image from that Saturday in 2010 when he first met Carciumaru.
When the SISO technician raised his hand, McCulloch asked him into a nearby room. McCulloch thought he was doing an interview. Carciumaru thought otherwise.
“Before he got up to move and pick up his hard drives, he handed over his wallet and his watch to a friend and said: ‘Tell my wife I love her,’ ” McCulloch said.
The hard drives provided by Carciumaru gave the RCMP access to more than 60,000 entries, producing 400 printed pages that became evidence in the trial.
For RCMP Sergeant Cathy McCrory, what was so difficult about the investigation was the despair that SISO employees felt.
“Most of them could barely get through their witness statements before breaking down,” McCrory said. “They were so proud and attached to SISO for all the good work it had done that this devastated them. They believed so deeply in the organization.”
SISO, now bankrupt, was once Hamilton’s largest agency working with refugees and immigrants. It provided programs and supports to 400 government-assisted refugees and helped about 8,000 immigrants access services each year.
McCrory said police will be going back to former workers for one more round of interviews. Victim impact statements are needed for use in the sentencing of Jafarpour and Salama, who are back in court Sept. 30.