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Cinar founder Ronald Weinberg, two others found guilty on fraud charges

Cinar co-founder Ronald Weinberg, who is accused of fraudulently funnelling $120-million (U.S.) out of the company and into offshore accounts, arrives at the courthouse Monday, Dec. 11, 2006 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/CP

The founder of once high-flying children's animation company Cinar Corp. and two investment executives he dealt with have been found guilty of fraud and other charges, bringing an end to what is believed to be Canada's longest-running jury trial.

Cinar founder and former chief executive officer Ronald Weinberg, as well as John Xanthoudakis of Norshield Financial Group Inc. and Lino Matteo of Mount Real Corp., were found guilty of most of the charges against them. They had all pleaded not guilty.

The verdict is vindication for a Canadian justice system that has often been criticized for weak enforcement and a poor record of criminal convictions in the area of white-collar crime.

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For Mr. Weinberg, it represents a crushing defeat after more than 15 years of asserting his innocence in a drama-filled, byzantine and seemingly endless case involving dozens of players, mysterious Bahamas bank accounts and the collapse of the celebrated animation company he built with his wife, Micheline Charest.

It also marks the end of a two-year jury trial that underscores the pressure of such lengthy proceedings on individual jurors. Legal experts contacted could recall no other case heard by a jury in Canada that lasted as long.

Launched in May of 2014, the trial saw two of the 14 jurors excused for health reasons last year while a third got pregnant and was dismissed to have the baby and attend her father's funeral. The threat of a mistrial, which would come if the number of jurors dropped below 10, loomed constantly.

"We're extremely satisfied" with the outcome, said Crown prosecutor Matthew Ferguson. He said it shows that the jury system is still an adequate method to hear serious and potentially complex cases like fraud despite the length of the trial.

"The fact that 11 jurors out of 14 stuck it out and stuck to it for over two years when they were told [the trial would last] five to six months, it shows that despite the enormous sacrifice, the jury can still parse through the evidence and come to a reasonable verdict."

The Sûreté du Québec conducted a decade-long investigation and issued arrest warrants for the accused in 2011.

Mr. Weinberg was accused of fraudulently funnelling $120-million (U.S.) out of Montreal-based Cinar into offshore accounts. The transfers were made through a byzantine series of transactions via funds and companies linked to Norshield and Mount Real.

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A U.S. native, he was found guilty of nine out of 16 counts against him, including three counts of fraud and one count of issuing a false prospectus. Those are the charges the prosecution considered the most serious.

Mr. Xanthoudakis, who steered Montreal-based hedge fund Norshield, was found guilty on all counts, 17 in total. Charges against him include fraud and making false documents.

Mr. Matteo was found guilty of nine out of 11 counts. The jury found he also committed fraud and falsified documents. Mount Real, the Montreal-based investment firm he managed, later imploded. Norshield also stopped operating.

A fourth executive, Cinar's former executive vice-president and chief financial officer, Hasanain Panju, pleaded guilty and received a four-year prison term. He later testified as a key Crown witness in the case, outlining to the jury how he committed the fraud.

The judge in the case ruled all three defendants be taken into custody immediately because they represent a flight risk. Arguments for their sentencing begin on Monday. Each man faces a maximum of 10 years in prison. Mr. Panju's sentence will be the point of reference.

Mr. Weinberg and his late wife Ms. Charest founded Cinar, initially a film distribution company, in 1976. They went on to build it into an animation powerhouse, with such popular and critically well-received titles as Caillou and Arthur to its credit. The company was eventually publicly listed and reached a peak of $1.5-billion (Canadian) in market capitalization. The toast of North American investors and entertainment industry players alike, it also won an Emmy.

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In 1999, allegations surfaced that Cinar was falsifying the identities of scriptwriters to be eligible for Canadian content subsidies. There were also accusations of plagiarism and the use of company funds to renovate the co-founders' sumptuous Westmount home and pay for a nanny for their two children.

Allegations of misuse of Cinar funds broke in early 2000. At the beginning of the trial in 2014, Mr. Ferguson called Cinar "a massive fraud of a successful public company from the inside and out" and said Mr. Weinberg, Ms. Charest and Mr. Panju used the company like "a personal piggy bank."

Mr. Ferguson alleged that $120-million (U.S.) of Cinar money was transferred to Bahamas-based companies controlled by Norshield without the knowledge of Cinar's board. Mr. Xanthoudakis and Mr. Matteo were accused of orchestrating "the cleanup strategy" to try to cover the losses with backdated transactions.

All three men can appeal the jury's verdict.

Mr. Matteo's conviction is a "great comfort" to investors in Mount Real and Norshield, said Janet Watson, a Quebec resident who represents a group of people who lost millions worth of investments in Mount Real. Her group has a class-action suit pending against the accounting firms that did business with Mount Real.

"This is certainly, I would think, going to help because it just shows they were dealing with crooks," Ms. Watson said of the accounting firms. "We've been waiting a long time for justice."

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Ms. Charest died in 2004 from complications suffered during plastic surgery. She was never charged.

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