A definitive conclusion in the allegations of fraud and breach of trust against former funeral director Patrick Benson arrived on June 5th when he appeared in court to plead guilty on eight charges of fraud.
The charges stem from activities occurring from 2008 to 2015 at the Benson Funeral Home which he owned and operated at the time and relate to a large number of prepaid funeral contracts where funds were mishandled.
Last May, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario published a notice in this newspaper that Benson’s license to sell any funeral, burial or cremation services had been revoked and clarifying that the new operators of the local funeral home, Gwen Fallis and Bill Shields, had no affiliation with Benson. The notice was accompanied by one from Patrick Benson in which he offered assurances that all client funds in question received were accounted for and in the hands of the Bereavement Authority.
Bill Shields and Gwen Fallis purchased the assets of Benson Funeral Homes in December 2015 and began to operate as Benson Shields Funeral Home, believing the Benson name was an asset communicating the continuation of compassionate and professional services associated with this brand. For several months, Benson continued to provide funeral services as an employee.
Things began to unravel in July 2016 when Shields first began to receive telephone calls from customers for prepaid funerals for which Shields had no records. There was no contract and the funds had not been placed into trust as required by law.
With some reluctance, the new owners severed ties with Benson and renamed the firm Fallis & Shields Funeral Home Inc. to clarify their position.
Last September, Benson was arrested and charged with one count of fraud and seven counts of using, dealing, and acting on a forged document at the conclusion of a joint investigation between the Peterborough police and the Bereavement Authority of Ontario into his handling of funds related to pre-paid funeral contracts. The investigation revealed that the funeral home was allegedly defrauded of roughly $120,000 between 2006 and 2015, as funds received from the sale of pre-paid contracts were not held in segregated trust accounts as required by law. The investigation also revealed that in January and February of 2017 the accused wrote pre-paid funeral contracts forging customers’ signatures.
In an emotional victim impact statement read at the sentencing, Shields described his shock and dismay at the deceit demonstrated by Benson, a friend of 25 years, and the emotional and financial toll Benson’s actions have taken on him and his partner Gwen. In addition to the emotional distress, Shields estimates that the financial cost to the business approaches $50,000 stemming from corporate legal and rebranding costs, lost contracts and providing services at discounted rates to honour contracts sold by Benson.
For his part, Benson offered an apology, stating he was sincerely sorry and his intention had always been to honour the contracts.
In her decision, Justice Esther Rosenberg delivered a six-month concurrent sentence on seven counts of fraud under $5,000 followed by an additional second six-month sentence. Conditions loosen up as the sentences proceed, and as sole provider for his family, Benson will continue to operate his shuttle service at the Peterborough Airport. He must also perform 150 hours of community service. In establishing the sentence, the judge considered the fact that there has been full restitution to the regulator of the misappropriated funds with the exception of a $7000 account that remains in civil litigation. This is the first criminal conviction of a funeral home operator since the regulatory agency was established in the province.
While restitution has been made, this is not a victimless crime. Rather than reduce stress, these undocumented prepaid contracts created additional turmoil as clients discovered their contracts were not valid at a time when they were most vulnerable, dealing with the loss of a loved one. The damage to the reputation extends beyond the local firm, as industry colleagues have indicated that they, too, have received questions about the security of prepaid contracts.
It has been a long ordeal for the new owners. Having a definitive conclusion in the public domain will curb the rumours and help them to clear their firm’s reputation as in a business where trust is a key ingredient. While they look forward to putting this nightmare behind them and focussing on their dream of building a successful business that serves the community, the turmoil is not over yet. Last week they received another call from a prepaid customer where the corporate contract reflected half of the amount on the face of the customer’s version, indicating the corporate contract was forged. Several days before his court date, Benson filed for personal bankruptcy, eliminating the possibility of providing further restitution as new claims emerge. KG