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Richmond Hill Coun. Karen Cilevitz pleads guilty to fraud under $5,000, original charges withdrawn

Richmond Hill Liberal Reporter Sheila Wang attended Councillor Cilevitz's court date on July 11, 2022. Below is Sheila's article.

Below is the full text of the article.

Eighteen months after Karen Cilevitz and her spouse made the headlines for fraud charges, the Richmond Hill councillor pleaded guilty in court on July 11 to a lesser offence as the original charges against both have been withdrawn.

Cilevitz, 64, will serve a three-month conditional sentence for fraud under $5,000, the court ordered Monday. During the period, she is required to remain in her residence daily between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. except for emergencies.

The city councillor was previously charged with fraud over $5,000 and breach of trust by a public officer which have since been withdrawn.

Cilevitz said she fully accepted that “ignorance is no excuse of the law” but that, had she recognized that the matter at hand could be construed as any type of illegal activity, she would not have participated in it.

The councillor has also voluntarily paid back full restitution to the City of Richmond Hill, according to the court.

“You’ve done a lot of good. But this one action is incredibly bad. It's bad because a person in the position of integrity violated the most core trust required in a democracy,” Justice Paul M. Cooper said.

The Crown has withdrawn the allegations against Cilevitz’s spouse Derek Christie. He was previously charged with fraud over $5,000 and possession of proceeds of crime.

“I welcome the charges being dropped of course and it speaks for itself,” Christie said.

The Richmond Hill couple were arrested Dec. 15, 2020 as York Regional Police investigated a report from the office of now-fired Richmond Hill Integrity Commissioner Norman Groot about an alleged pay arrangement between Cilevitz’s new staff member and her spouse.

The alleged criminal scheme resulted in more than $21,000 being transferred from the councillor’s new assistant to Christie from August 2019 to May 2020, police say.

“None of this should have happened, but it did, and I will accept responsibility for that which I regretfully undertook … Under extreme circumstances, human beings sometimes make extreme irrational decisions,” Cilevitz said in her speech in the courthouse.

In an interview with The Liberal, the councillor said she agreed to the pay arrangement at a time when she and her family were “in a financial bind.”

Cilevitz was docked pay for 90 days for allegedly harassing and intimidating a Richmond Hill resident in December 2018, following a complaint filed by Regional Coun. Carmine Perrelli.

In the following months, Cilevitz would face a total loss of 315 days’ pay as a result of several other complaints filed to the integrity commissioner’s office by Perrelli, who also proposed higher sanction than recommended at that time.

Cilevitz said she had hoped to hire her spouse as an assistant in her office to help through the difficult times. However, she was told that the city’s hiring of relatives policy prohibited her from doing that.

Having confided her predicament in Patricia Burton-Garcia — whom she considered a close acquaintance and part of her inner circle — Cilevitz said the longtime volunteer proposed the idea of working for the councillor’s office and splitting her pay with Christie.

Burton-Garcia had volunteered in Cilevitz’s 2018 election campaign and offered to help look after her pets in her condo when the couple was away — which Cilevitz said she paid her extra in cash.

“Why don’t you hire me? I don’t mind sharing my salary with Derek,” Cilevitz recalled Burton-Garcia suggesting in her office. “Those words are burned into my brain.”

After some consideration — though Cilevitz said the idea “didn’t sit right” with her — she agreed to the arrangement, noting “I never at any point thought to myself that it could be considered a criminal act.”

In an email to the Liberal, Burton-Garcia said Cilevitz approached her with the salary arrangement as she had often expressed interest in working for the city and was already volunteering.

"When she did mention the salary arrangement, I was happy to work for the city and her, (but) didn't expect her to follow through with what she was asking," the former assistant said.

Under the salary arrangement, the city would receive work from both Burton-Garcia and Christie within Cilevitz's allotted discretionary budget and each would receive some remuneration for their work, the court says.

With the title of administrative clerk, Burton-Garcia worked about 20 hours per week, included providing support and assistance at council meetings and community events. She received $800 to $900 net biweekly from the city and would transfer a portion to Christie every second Friday, according to their arrangement.

During the 11-month time, Burton-Garcia transferred a total of $21,384.68 out of the $37,000 she received from the city to Christie. Burton-Garcia said she is "still quite traumatized by the subject" and declined to speak, but was open to responding on email.

“I'm happy, only in a sense that these results confirm a convicted criminal, still sitting on council!” she responded to the court ruling, calling for her "immediate resignation."

“I made a mistake. I made a mistake under some very, very difficult, stressful circumstances, which I will probably have to live with for the rest of my life. I know who I am. This does not define me,” Cilevitz said.

Christie said he worked about 20 to 30 hours per week with responsibilities ranging from advising the councillor on member motions and communications as well as assisting in scheduling and executing community and charity initiatives.

He said he felt he wasn’t thinking clearly at that time, but he believed he was fairly compensated for the amount of work he undertook.

“ ... it was one of those temporary situations where we were in a squeeze,” said Christie, a performing and recording musician.

Cilevitz said she believed Burton-Garcia was helping her out “from the goodness of her heart” as the two had a good relationship since 2018.

However, Cilevtiz said their relationship started to take a subtle turn in early 2020 when Burton-Garcia started raising her concerns about getting hit with a high tax bill because of the chques she received from the city — about $4,000 — which Cilevitz said she didn’t fully understand, but attempted to help.

At some point during the pandemic, Cilevitz said their communication became difficult to a point where she decided to terminate the employment with Burton-Garcia at the end of June 2020.

Long before her termination, Burton-Garcia said she sought help from Regional Coun. Perrelli with her concerns about working with Cilevitz. Her complaint was reported to the integrity commissioner, which eventually was turned over to the police.

“It is so shocking. Everything escalated with my mental health and physical health … I was put on medication to deal with this crushing, absolutely crushing depression and anxiety. I think for the first three to four weeks following the arrest, I would wake up screaming, thinking that the police were in our home,” Cilevitz said.

Cilevitz said while the arrest marked the culmination of her nightmares, the councillor's trouble began long before that.

Since as early as the 2018 municipal election, Cilevitz said she has endured stress and distress caused by people who would “seek to destroy me on a political level,” as the devastating impact on her health has led to the need for professional help.

In addition to almost a year's worth of pay suspension sanctioned by some of her council colleagues, Cilevitz was often seen being interrupted and mocked on the city council which has been marked by disruption and bickering this term.

With the next election months away, the councillor said she will leave the big decision in the hands of the public.

“It's up to the residents to decide whether or not I should serve a third term,” Cilevitz said.

Richmond Hill Mayor David West said "elected officials should be expected to uphold the public’s trust and serve the community with integrity — this is what the residents of Richmond Hill deserve and what our Council is committed to doing for the remainder of this term."

Informed by the Liberal of the court decision, the mayor said, Cilevitz would be permitted to retain her seat under the municipal act.


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