Before Cinar became shorthand for one of the biggest frauds in Canadian business history, it made its name by engaging in a more socially constructive endeavour. By producing children's programming that parents actually wanted their kids to watch, it proved you could make money in the television business with content that developed young minds instead of warping them.
This was the mission Ronald Weinberg and Micheline Charest, as young parents themselves in the mid-1980s, took on as they transformed Cinar from a fledgling content-distribution company into perhaps the continent's most respected children's TV programmer a decade later.
"Good-quality kids' programming is not a luxury for society," Ms. Charest insisted in a 1998 interview. "It is an essential component in shaping the minds of our future citizens."
Experts in early-childhood development gushed over shows such as Arthur and Wimzie's House. Kids lapped them up. Cinar's shares soared. So did the personal stock of its founders.
That legacy is in tatters now, with the nine-year prison sentence imposed this week on Mr. Weinberg for defrauding Cinar's shareholders emerging as the final kicker in this morality tale. Ms. Charest might be joining him behind bars were it not for her tragic death in 2004 following cosmetic surgery gone wrong. Cinar is now a symbol of the seedier aspects of human nature.
The fairy tale began to unravel when Montreal animator Claude Robinson sued Cinar and its principals for copyright infringement in 1995, alleging that Mr. Weinberg, Ms. Charest and their associates deliberately copied his ideas and designs for an animated children's series based on the Daniel Defoe character Robinson Crusoe. The couple publicly dismissed Mr. Robinson as an opportunist and the suit as a frivolous par-for-the-course irritant in the content-creation business. Most believed them.
"We work in creation and intellectual property. Lawsuits are inevitable," Ms. Charest told La Presse in early 1999. "We've expanded a lot in recent years; so have our enemies."
What Mr. Robinson's meticulously detailed case helped uncover, however, was an elaborate scheme employed by Cinar to improperly obtain federal and provincial tax credits by disguising scripts written by Americans as Canadian content. That led to an RCMP investigation revealing that Mr. Weinberg and his associates transferred $122-million (U.S.) out of Cinar into offshore accounts without the knowledge of Cinar's board, depleting the company of its liquid assets.
It would take almost a decade before charges were finally laid against Mr. Weinberg, John Xanthoudakis and Lino Matteo, and another five years before their convictions and sentencing this month following a 22-month criminal jury trial, Canada's longest. Former Cinar chief financial officer Hasanain Panju had previously pleaded guilty and received a four-year sentence.
Even before this month's verdicts, the extent of Mr. Weinberg and Ms. Charest's misuse of the public company they controlled to enrich themselves at shareholders' expense had been exposed. Renovations on their Westmount mansion and Eastern Townships cottage, nannies, school fees and a grand piano were all paid for out of company funds, which the couple and Mr. Panju viewed as "their personal piggybank," according to the Crown prosecutor in the case.
In 2009, the Quebec Superior Court sided with Mr. Robinson, with the judge in the case concluding that the conduct of Mr. Weinberg and Ms. Charest was based on "trickery, lying and dishonesty." The punitive damages he awarded to Mr. Robinson, he said, were meant to "sanction their scandalous, vile and immoral conduct."
In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the verdict in Mr. Robinson's favour, concluding that Mr. Weinberg, Ms. Charest and an associate implicated in the case "consistently and contemptuously denied having access to Robinson's work, and disparaged Robinson's claims that they had copied his work. Their behaviour constitutes an interference with Robinson's Charter right to dignity, and provides an additional basis for the award of punitive damages."
The moral of this story, kids, is to never lose sight of why you're following your passion in the first place. Mr. Weinberg and Ms. Charest set out to make non-violent, non-sexist children's programming because they wanted to foster socially progressive attitudes and feelings of self-worth in their own sons and a generation of kids with far too many bad TV choices.
But by the time their own kids had outgrown Cinar's shows, the couple's motivations seemed to have slid down the well-greased path of basic greed and avarice. If it took breaking the rules to enrich themselves, so be it. Success had gone to their heads. They acted (if not felt) invincible.
Their story is a lesson in the importance of staying humble.