BERWICK —North Stormont Mayor Dennis Fife says the township is looking for a treasurer to replace Monique Lajeunesse, 55, who faces criminal charges in connection with the disappearance of a "substantial" sum of taxpayers’ money.
The mayor also acknowledges that "a lot" of the still-undisclosed figure involves payments from property owners who chose to pay their annual township levy the old-fashioned way — with cash. Approximately 150 taxpayers came forward to assist the investigation in response to the mayor’s appeal for help last December, according to Fife.
The Ontario Provincial Police on June 6 charged Lajeunesse with theft over $5,000, breach of trust, fraud over $5,000, and false statement in writing — six months after Fife and the OPP announced the probe into missing township funds and eight months after a preliminary review of the books by township auditors found something awry. Released on a promise to appear in Cornwall court July 3, the accused has been on sick leave since the investigation went public in December.
While council quickly installed clerk Karen McPherson as the township’s acting CAO/treasurer at that time, Lajeunesse has technically remained on staff with the township, even in the days after being charged, the mayor revealed June 15. Though acknowledging her presumption of innocence, Fife said he expected Lajeunesse’s employment status with North Stormont to change "very soon."
Occasionally bowling for charitable causes with a team from council, the veteran municipal office employee was absorbed into the North Stormont organization from Roxborough Township at amalgamation time in 1998. She became township treasurer several years ago and belonged to an association of treasurers in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, who meet occasionally on a variety of shared issues.
"She’s the last person I would have suspected of something like this," said North Dundas treasurer John Gareau of the charges against his counterpart to the east. "She was always pleasant and cooperative."
Better controls now
Asked if the township learned any lessons as a result of the investigation, Fife replied: "Yes, definitely. The biggest lesson learned is you probably need to go through a process of at least three people handling a cash payment. It needs to be entered the second it’s dropped off. Then, the cash goes to the next person who looks after the deposits and whatnot. And that’s all been put into place."
Gareau said it’s "unusual" for taxpayers to submit taxes owing in cash these days but added the practice still occurs to some degree in rural townships. "There are still people that come in and pay cash," he said, adding it’s a matter of normal "internal controls" to ensure a division of duties among staff when handling such transactions. Those receiving the money at the counter naturally can’t hold the responsibility of entering that revenue onto the township’s books, he explained.
No impact on budget
Fife also emphasized that the missing funds won’t affect the township budget by compelling a tax hike or cutbacks. That’s because the township has insurance to cover such incidents and related auditing costs. He couldn’t estimate the number of hours the township’s auditors at Craig, Keen, Despatie, Markell LLP would ultimately bill to the township as a result of the probe, or the total number of hours township staff have dedicated to the exercise over the past several months.
"But it’s still ongoing," he noted. "Everybody that we sent confirmation letters out to didn’t respond. And we’ve now sent out final tax bills for the year. And I hope if somebody believes they’re still not right, that they come forward."
It’s still possible and no fault of township staff, he added, that "somebody may get a bill that’s supposedly already paid, and it shows it isn’t."
The township’s insurance won’t cover any legal fees that may be incurred if North Stormont’s lawyer deems it necessary to attend court proceedings related to Lajeunesse on the township’s behalf, he said. However, the mayor doesn’t expect any such legal costs to be great enough to affect the township budget.
And while Fife hopes to have a standalone treasurer in the township’s employ again — as opposed to the combined role now played by McPherson — he doesn’t see the situation leading to a net increase in the number of senior staff positions at North Stormont, which never had a Chief Administrative Officer until prompted by this crisis. CAO is one half of the acting title conferred on McPherson, but don’t expect the township to end up with a clerk, a CAO and a treasurer at the end of the day, according to the mayor. However, he suggested a combined clerk/CAO title would be a possibility.
North Stormont has a population of about 6,800.