The trial of a Chatham-area man accused of fraudulently obtaining more than $60,000 in child-tax benefits for claiming dozens of fictitious children was sidetracked Tuesday while the Crown and defence argued whether or not a prosecution witness was a “person of authority.”
Michael Hulme, 39, has pleaded not guilty to four counts of tax fraud under the Income Tax Act for allegedly claiming child-tax benefits of $32,320.05 throughout 2014 and $29,140.83 over the first five months of 2015. Court previously heard how benefit claims were made by Hulme for both boys and girls, many of whom were born just days apart in the same month and year, with several sharing the same name.
However, a voir dire – a mini-trial within a trial – occupied the whole day, focusing on whether Barbara McCrea, a benefits examination officer with the Canada Revenue Agency, could be considered a person of authority and whether Hulme voluntarily gave information when contacted by her.
By the time court adjourned at 4 p.m., Ontario court Justice Lucy Glenn still had to make a decision on these questions. She also received a request from Crown attorney Paul Bailey, who is representing the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), to reopen the voir dire so he could introduce more evidence.
McCrea testified about her dealings with Hulme, which included leaving an April 13, 2015, voice message regarding a child-tax claim for 26 children. He called her back the next day.
She informed Hulme she needed “proof of care,” such as a doctor’s note, that he was the caregiver of what turned out to be 24 kids after he told her two girls were no longer in his care.
McCrea testified Hulme asked for an extension, promising he would get the information, including birth certificates for the children, to her by May 1, 2015.
When she didn’t receive a response by May 4, 2015, McCrea said she “ended the eligibility for the children.”
She added a letter, dated May 11, 2015, was sent to Hulme that he owed the CRA money for these undocumented children.
McCrea also passed the matter on to a CRA resource officer, she said.
Because of her role as a benefits examination officer, she clarified she did not participate in a joint investigation with the CRA’s criminal investigations division.
Hulme’s defence lawyer, Ken Marley, asked McCrea about the claim involving 26 children, which McCrea described as “unusual,” explaining it was the most she had seen in a child-tax benefit application.
She also told the court she “can’t make assumptions” about applications, noting there are cases where nieces and nephews are claimed as dependents.
Marley also questioned McCrea on her efforts to determine if his client was the Michael Hulme who made the benefit claims via the CRA’s online application program.
McCrea outlined how she asked for Hulme’s social insurance number and address to ensure it matched what was in the CRA’s database.
Marley asked if it was possible that someone other than Hulme could have put the information in the application.
“Anything’s possible,” she said.
Marley then confirmed that McCrea did not conduct an “independent investigation or inquiry to confirm the information.” He also confirmed that McCrea did not verify the telephone number that called April 14, 2015, was the same number she called the previous day to leave a message.
He also asked if she sent the May 11, 2015 letter by registered mail or another means to confirm Hulme received it.
McCrea said she sent the letter by “regular mail.”
Marley also insisted the fact McCrea had the power to end Hulme’s eligibility for the benefits showed she was a person of authority.
Bailey said the defence did not produce “one whit of evidence it could be someone other than Mr. Hulme.”
He added all the evidence pointed to it being Hulme.
He noted McCrea indicated their conversation on the phone was “friendly” and she didn’t try to “trick” Hulme into giving her any information.
The Crown also pointed out this is the first time McCrea has been involved in a court case for the CRA in her 34-year career with agency.
Bailey requested to have the voir dire reopened so he could introduce such evidence as records showing direct payments being made from the CRA to Hulme’s account.
However, Marley argued the judge shouldn’t allow it, noting Bailey, an experienced prosecutor, had plenty of time to prepare the evidence he needed to present to make his case.
Glenn said she would need to the night to make a decision and adjourned the trial for the day.
The trial continues Wednesday when CRA inspector who laid the charges against Hulme is expected to take the stand.