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Money manager accused of defrauding 9,200 makes surprise guilty plea

MONTREAL - A white-collar criminal accused of defrauding 9,200 people in a massive scheme walked into court in uncharacteristically casual attire Monday, sporting a gym bag, running shoes and a sweater in anticipation of a trip to jail.

MONTREAL - A white-collar criminal accused of defrauding 9,200 people in a massive scheme walked into court in uncharacteristically casual attire Monday, sporting a gym bag, running shoes and a sweater in anticipation of a trip to jail.

Vincent Lacroix shocked a courtroom by pleading guilty to 200 fraud-related criminal charges - this after he had spent years vigorously proclaiming his innocence.

The only inkling of the abrupt shift came in Lacroix's garb as he arrived wearing clothes and accessories more suitable for an extended trip to the big house rather than the prisoner's dock in the courthouse.

The former head of Norbourg Inc. entered the pleas in Quebec Superior Court and was immediately sent to prison.

"My client decided to turn the page," said Lacroix's lawyer, Marie-Helene Giroux.

"He knew he would be detained. He brought his bag with him to go to jail."

Sentencing arguments will be heard Friday. Jury selection will continue for the five other co-accused in the case.

Lacroix had been accused of illegally appropriating more than $100 million in a trust-fund scam.

He had already begun serving a prison term after being convicted in 2007 for securities violations but the sentence was reduced, he had already left jail and he was set to get full parole on Sept. 27.

The upcoming sentencing will produce a rare legal dilemma for the court: Because Lacroix has already been convicted and punished for related crimes - but in a separate, civil court case - will the previous time served be subtracted from his sentence?

When asked about her client's state of mind, Giroux said: "He is relieved because he was under a lot of the stress of going under a jury trial."

She moved to stamp out speculation Lacroix had copped a plea with prosecutors, whereby he would testify against his co-accused in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

The Crown confirmed there was no agreement on a sentence. Giroux said there has not yet been any indication the Crown would even ask Lacroix to testify in the case of the other five accused. However, she said discussions are underway with the Crown about sentencing conditions.

Victims expressed mixed sentiments about Monday's development.

Pierre Gravel lost $300,000 - $200,000 of which he managed to recover.

"It's not just the money, but also the situation it created in my family and all the dreams that I was building," Gravel said in an interview.

"(The plea is) excellent news. It will save Quebec taxpayers (money) by getting rid of a trial that could have been very, very long."

But Gravel is still suspicious of Lacroix's motives. He says a trial might have forced him to reveal more details about what he did with investors' money - and whether any of it remains hidden somewhere.

"Maybe he hopes it won't be too long for him (in prison)," Gravel said.

"Maybe he hopes he'll be able to get out and use the money he has hidden - because all the investors are convinced that money is hidden somewhere."

The charges involve fraud, forgery, conspiracy and profiting from the proceeds of crime.

Another victim was particularly upset that Lacroix might avoid answering questions.

Victim Jean-Guy Houle saw his granddaughters' inheritance - $200,000 - go up in smoke. And he's dismayed by the idea Lacroix might still manage to spend some of it.

"I'm very, very, very, very disappointed and it's not just me," Houle said. "I'm speaking on behalf of many investors who are very disappointed with that.

"Where is the rest of the money which is hidden? He will want to take advantage (of this). He'll pay his debt to society, he'll be three years without a passport, he'll ask for a pardon, he'll get a passport. . .

"Mr. Lacroix will serve one-sixth of his sentence and, in seven or eight years, he will be walking around in the sun spending investors' money. He will be taking advatange of our assets until we're dead and gone."

He said Canada needs tougher penalties for white-collar criminals. The federal government has said it will introduce some this fall.

"It's a rape that he's committed," Houle said. "He's violated us.

 
 
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