The judge called Layne Richard Benner’s actions “a colossal breach of trust.”
But, instead of issuing a jail sentence to Benner for pocketing nearly $12,500 from the BX-Swan Lake Volunteer Fire Department’s funds for his own use over a span of more than a decade, judge Mark Takahashi agreed to a joint submission from Crown counsel Howard Pontious and defence lawyer Richard Hewson.
Benner, 40, pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of failing to account in connection with missing funds from the volunteer fire hall between March 2005 and December 2010, and, on Wednesday, in Vernon Provincial Court, was given a suspended sentence, 12-months probation and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service work in the next six months.
Benner was also told he can’t do any volunteer work that includes handling money and he must pay restitution to the fire department of $12,476.93, which Benner did through Hewson on Wednesday.
“I’m still mystified how this all occurred,” said Takahashi after a 30-minute submission of agreed facts from both lawyers. “He breached the trust of his friends and family, of (fire chief) Bill Wacey and every member of the fire department.”
Pontious told the court that Benner’s indiscretions date back a number of years, but “so many years in fact that the banks couldn’t go back far enough with their records to determine exactly how much was missing.”
On Jan. 4, 2011, Vernon RCMP received a report from Wacey, stating that he believed the fire hall’s treasurer – Benner, who had been in the position since 1999 – had defrauded the firefighters.
“He (Wacey) was guessing in the $30,000 range,” said Pontious. “But the amount that could be verified was $12,476.93.”
The funds raised by the fire department came from its charity work, fundraising and from a monthly $35 fee paid by each member. Wacey noticed discrepancies in cheques being cashed and had the department’s accountant look into it. She advised the chief that money was unaccounted for.
Pontious said Benner took advantage of his position as two people were required to sign fire department cheques. One was Wacey, who pre-signed a number of cheques. The other was Benner.
“He trusted Benner to follow the process and he ended up taking for certain $12,476.93,” said Pontious. “That had a huge impact on the fire department and some of the stuff they do.”
In a three-page victim impact statement read to the court, Wacey said as the person ultimately responsible for the running of the fire rescue service, “the sick feeling I had when this all came to light was gut-wrenching.”
“I trusted Layne totally and without reservation for 11 years,” said Wacey, joined in court by three members of the department. “I counted on him for his opinion and friendship. I defended Layne and tried to find the good in him when others were upset with him. I now regret that decision.”
Benner wrote a letter of apology to the fire department but Wacey asked Takahashi for Benner to read the letter in front of the entire membership, not just the court.
Takahashi agreed with Hewson, who declined the offer on behalf of his client.
“It would not assist in any rehabilitation,” said Takahashi. “He pleaded guilty, that’s the first step to rehabilitation.”
The letter was never read in court.
Hewson told the court that his client was experiencing financial difficulties when he began expropriating funds from the fire hall, that Benner was divorced but in a new relationship. He has two children from a previous relationship, is self-employed in the construction industry and used to work in insurance.
Hewson presented three character letters from Benner’s fiancée, parents and a longtime friend, each stating Benner’s remorse for his actions.
“The fact he entered an early guilty plea, paid restitution in full, expressed remorse, has no prior criminal record and cooperated with authorities from the beginning should play a part in sentencing,” said Hewson. “He has also lost a large circle of friends whose companionship he enjoyed for more than a decade. That’s been lost forever.”
Benner, dressed in a white shirt and tie, dress pants and leather jacket, did not speak during sentencing. His head was bowed and he appeared to be wiping away tears when Wacey read his victim impact statement.
“We’re satisfied with the RCMP and their investigation, and with Crown counsel,” said Wacey outside the Vernon Court House. “We want to thank the RCMP and our auditor, Monica Carys. They really went overboard in some parts of the investigation.
“Our only hope in going forward is that we get our trust back. We’re satisfied that restitution was paid. We’ll never know the true value about how much was taken. We’re satisfied and we’re going to move on.”