A former finance manager who defrauded a Burnaby seniors care home during the COVID-19 pandemic should go to jail for 16 months, according to the Crown prosecutor on the case.
Vancouver resident Nahaz Hirji, 34, pleaded guilty in April to two counts of fraud over $5,000.
At a hearing last Wednesday, Crown prosecutor Paul Pietrusinski argued Hirji should get a 16-month jail sentence, two years of probation and an order forcing him to repay the money he took.
Hirji’s lawyer, David Karp, meanwhile, argued his client should be allowed to serve his sentence in the community with a period of house arrest.
‘Isolated and vulnerable’ seniors
One of the charges relates to Hirji’s time working with the George Derby Care Society, which operates the George Derby Centre.
He was hired at the long-term care facility as an executive assistant to director Ava Turner in March 2019 and was promoted to a “finance manager position” in September 2020, according to information presented by Pietrusinski.
Within weeks of his promotion, Hirji wrote himself three fraudulent cheques worth a total of $7,000 from the society’s petty cash account.
Each of the cheques bore his signature and what appeared to be Turner’s signature, but Turner told police she hadn’t signed them, Pietrusinski said.
Hirji was originally charged with using forged documents as well as fraud.
“Notably, from the Crown’s perspective, the fraud committed in that instance was at a time when seniors care homes were in the national spotlight during COVID,” Pietrusinski said. “It was a time when the elderly residents, many of whom have long-term medical illnesses, were particularly isolated and vulnerable.”
Turner did not submit a victim impact statement, but Pietrusinski said she had asked him to tell the court that Hirji had been hired to support and protect elderly residents, many of whom have dementia.
“She expressed her own feelings of shame that she hired the accused,” Pietrusinski said.
But George Derby wasn’t the first employer Hirji had defrauded.
$120,600 in fraudulent cheques
Before coming to the seniors care home, he had worked as an executive assistant to the owner of CEFA Early Learning, a for-profit early education company.
After he resigned from that position, the company noticed two missing cheques and a missing signature stamp.
Hirji went on to deposit those cheques, filled out for $62,600 and $50,000, into his TD account, according to Pietrusinski.
The bank was able to charge back all of the funds except for 11 purchases, including a $397.60 purchase at Holt Renfrew.
A psychological report concluded Hirji had perpetrated the frauds to “maintain a high standard of living without compromise and to keep up appearances to boost his status and his self-esteem.”
“He will likely remain vulnerable to temptations of repeat offending should he continue to live beyond his means in order to maintain his expensive lifestyle in downtown Vancouver,” the report stated. “It is thus recommended that Mr. Hirji not be employed in a position where he might have easy access to company funds.”
While the psychological evaluation revealed some mental health and substance use issues, Pietrusinski argued there was no causal link between those and Hirji’s crimes.
Mental health issues, addiction ‘at play’
Defence lawyer David Karp disagreed.
“There is a complete connection,” he said.
He argued there were a number of mental health problems “at play” in Hirji’s offending, including depression, anxiety, adjustment disorder, stimulant disorder and drug addiction.
Karp said Hirji was using cocaine “on a day-to-day basis” at the time of the offence and that the $7,000 stolen from George Derby was spent mostly on drugs and alcohol.
Karp also criticized the psychological and pre-sentencing reports, which suggested Hirji wasn’t genuinely remorseful.
Karp said there were a number of comments in the reports Hirji “disagrees with categorically.”
“That information was communicated in a much different way than ended up being communicated in those reports,” Karp said.
As for the impact of the George Derby fraud, Karp said there was no specific evidence the residents of the centre were affected.
“My understanding is that this is a well-funded group,” Karp said.
B.C. provincial court Judge Donna Senniw will deliver her sentence on Wednesday.
‘Perfecting’ fraud technique
During his submissions, Pietrusinski said Hirji appeared to be “perfecting his fraud technique” over the course of the two offences.
A lawsuit launched by the employer he worked for after he left George Derby seems to bear that out.
Beyond Beige Interior Design Inc., where Hirji worked as an accountant after leaving George Derby, claims he defrauded them of more than $800,000 by diverting money from the company’s bank accounts to bank accounts that he controlled.
Beyond Beige alleges Hirji misappropriated funds by way of e-transfers to email addresses that appeared to be related to company vendors but were in fact controlled by him, according to court documents.
Hirji, who went off on stress leave before the alleged fraud was discovered, did not respond to the company’s notice of civil claim in time, and the court made a default judgment against him on May 8, ordering him to pay damages “to be assessed.”