Growth of charity chaired by London, ON mayor skyrockets

Mayor Joe Fontana during the budget meeting at City Hall in London, Ontario on Thursday, January 24, 2012



LONDON, ON -- The skyrocketing growth of a charity chaired by London's mayor and run by his son is raising questions but Joe Fontana isn't answering them -- and neither is his son, president of Trinity Global Financial Foundation.

In one year, Trinity Global more than doubled to $152 million the value of tax receipts it issued for donations.

Ugo Joseph Fontana, also known as Joe Jr., oversees the charity. Repeated attempts to get comment from him over the course of two weeks -- it was to his son that the mayor directed questions -- came up empty.

Trinity's numbers prompted questions from a former MP who spearheaded changes to Canada's charity laws and is considered an expert on charities.

"Certainly some things are peculiar," said John Bryden, now retired. He reviewed the financial returns Trinity Global filed with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

Bryden wrote Canada's Charities: A Need for Reform in 1996 and a year later Canada's Charities: A Call for Legislation.

He said he couldn't understand why only $23,000 was reported in salaries, but expenses for administration totalled $12 million.

"Where is it going? To outsiders?"

Bryden said there seems to be a lack of transparency about what Trinity is doing and he was staggered at the jump to $152 million from $70 million in gifts for which receipts were issued in just 12 months.

"What is it that is happening?" he asked. He said he can't "fathom" how Trinity operates, suggesting a chartered accountant might have better luck figuring it out.

Bryden's questions were among those put to Trinity president Fontana, for which no response came.

In its latest filings with the CRA, Trinity Global said its activities are focused on providing breakfast, lunch and after-school snack programs, and grants to soup kitchens, food banks and anti-bullying agencies.

It also sends pharmaceuticals to developing nations to help them fight HIV/AIDS, provides learning assistance for First Nations and makes donations to fight the child sex trade.

Trinity Global was founded in 2007 by Vince Ciccone, a boyhood chum of Joe Fontana Sr. from Timmins and business partner in London (Advance Property Management).

In 2008, when Fontana joined the board at Ciccone's urging, Trinity reported donations and income tax receipts issued totalled $72,500.

Ciccone left the board in 2011 after being charged by the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) with fraud, misleading investors and failing to file prospectuses for his Ciccone Group.

Late last year, Ciccone reached a deal with the securities regulator in which he agreed to repay investors $15 million, and $850,000 to the OSC. He was banned for life from trading in securities.

In December, Trinity ended a year-long partnership with a tax shelter program operated by Global Learning Gifting Initiative (GLGI).

That shelter has been described in court documents by the taxation agency as a "sham." GLGI provided "courseware" to help First Nations and the underprivileged upgrade their education and learn skilled trades, issuing receipts for what it said was the value of the software.

But the taxation agency said the scheme was organized primarily to benefit donors seeking to avoid taxes rather than to help needy Canadians. The CRA disallowed charitable receipts from it, triggering a court fight.

Charities that partnered with GLGI have lost their charitable registration status in recent months.

Joe Fontana Jr. said in November Trinity was cutting its ties with GLGI to focus more on providing external grants to other agencies and organizations.

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