Jeffrey McWhinney preyed upon vulnerable senior citizens, stealing $315,000 out of greed, a judge said Monday when she sentenced the former independent insurance agent to 18 months jail.
“There is no way to sugar coat Mr. McWhinney’s actions,” Ontario Court Justice Nathalie Gregson said.
“He stole and defrauded from five of his clients over the course of five years. These clients not only trusted Mr. McWhinney, they were vulnerable senior citizens.”
Calling the breach of trust “profound,” she told the high-profile 50-year-old Sault Ste. Marie man that he must be incarcerated for his actions.
He also will be on probation for two years once he completes his jail sentence.
McWhinney pleaded guilty in June to five counts of fraud for misappropriating the funds between December 1997 and August 2002.
A former president of the Sault North Rotary Club (1991-92) and Rotarian of the Year, he was named the Chamber of Commerce’s volunteer of the year in 2008.
At a sentencing hearing in January, lawyer Peter Berlingieri said his client stole the money to keep his failing business afloat.
The situation was made worse because McWhinney used volunteering to escape his troubles and that affected the business, he said.
When she gave her decision Monday, Gregson said the accused stole out of greed to continue his ongoing lifestyle.
McWhinney continued to live in his home, to raise his children, to take trips and to maintain his business.
“There is absolutely no justification for Mr. McWhinney’s shameful behaviour,” she said.
Gregson said while McWhinney’s volunteerism is commendable, “his good deeds contributed to his criminal offences.”
McWhinney touted himself as a person who should be held in a position of trust, she said.
“His accolades suggested to others they should invest with him as he was known for his integrity and for being a good citizen who had high ethical standards.”
The victims trusted him with the investment of their money for their own financial security or for their children’s future, Gregson said.
Prosecutor Nancy Komsa had called for a three-to-five-year federal penitentiary term for what she termed a large-scale fraud.
The assistant Crown attorney pointed to numerous aggravating factors, including the amount of the loss, number of victims, the length of the dishonesty, degree of sophistication and impact on the victims.
As an alternative, if the court didn’t want to impose a penitentiary sentence, she proposed two years less a day in jail, followed by probation.
Berlingieri sought a conditional sentence of two years less a day, which would be served in the community.
He cited a number of mitigating factors, including McWhinney’s pleas of guilt, his remorse, volunteer work, positive reference letters and lack of a prior record.
When she rejected the conditional sentence, Gregson said that the need for general deterrence and denunciation is paramount given the nature of the offences.
“Incarceration is necessary to send a strong message to denounce Mr. McWhinney’s conduct and to deter others from engaging in similar conduct.”
The judge described McWhinney’s premeditation to commit the frauds, which included adjusting records and falsifying documents, as troublesome.
“He committed the same type of fraudulent offence several times, over several years, preying on senior citizens.”
His actions have had devastating consequences, which include far more than the loss of money for his victims, she said.
In impact statements, filed with the court, the victims or their family members talked about losing trust in individuals handling their financial transactions.
One woman said she and her husband had trusted McWhinney, considered him a friend and recommended his services to her brother (one of the other fraud victims).
Outside the courtroom, Komsa called the jail term a fair and just sentence, but said it doesn’t give money back to the victims.
“I think it’s a deterrent to Mr. McWhinney and others who steal from the elderly,” she said.
“Talk about elder abuse, to steal from elderly, vulnerable people who scrape and save to put money is a secure place,” Komsa said. “That’s the message that’s being sent and I think it’s a good one.”
Berlingieri said the sentence was based on case law, which had a range of 18 to 24 months for such offences, and the judge decided on the low end of the range.
McWhinney had a lot of good things going for him, but society has a heightened sensitivity to these types of crimes and courts are responding to this, he said.
When he’s on probation, McWhinney can’t assume any position involving trust concerning others finances.
Gregson also imposed a stand-alone restitution order, which can be enforced in a civil court, for repayment of money to four of the victims.
One has already been reimbursed through an insurance company.