Photo: Nicholas Johansen
Robert Riley Saunders outside the Kelowna courthouse Friday.
During cross examination Friday, Robert Riley Saunders continued to maintain that the high-risk youth in his care could not have been trusted with the government funds that he stole for himself.
Saunders was employed as a guardianship social worker with B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development from 1996 until his fraudulent scheme was uncovered in 2018. He maintained his employment despite forging a university degree to obtain the position.
Saunders pleaded guilty last September to three of the 13 criminal charges he faces, and a Gardiner hearing has been held this week prior to his sentencing. A Gardiner hearing functions like a trial when aggravating and mitigating sentencing factors are in dispute, following an accused’s guilty plea. The primary matter in dispute in Saunders’ case is whether his admitted fraud agains the MCFD negatively impacted the high-risk youth in his care. The Crown has identified 24 youth they say were victims of his crimes.
Throughout the week, Saunders has claimed the money he stole from the MCFD would never have gone to the youth in his care, as they weren’t eligible for a variety of reasons. He’s admitted to producing a number of fraudulent “Independent Living Agreements” for young people in his care, opening joint bank accounts with them, and then withdrawing the Ministry funds for himself. But he claims he fraudulently produced these documents to provide a cover for his thefts, and the young people named in the documents were too “irresponsible,” or living in unstable environments, to have received the funds.
Saunders’ defence is that while he stole the funds which were doled out in the youths’ names, the funds were only issued as a result of his fraud, and therefore the young people were not deprived of funding which they were not entitled to.
During a second day of cross examination Friday morning, Crown prosecutor Heather Magnin went through several of Saunder’s Independent Living Agreements, which Saunders claims are all “fraudulent.” Saunders claims the young people’s signatures on some of the documents were forged by himself.
Thursday, Saunders did not have an answer for Magnin about why his supervisor had signed and approved Victim E’s Independent Living Agreements, but Friday, he said he had cut, pasted and photocopied his supervisor’s signature from a legitimate document onto Victim M’s Independent Living Agreements, which he claims is completely fraudulent.
“I did a lot of shady things,” Saunders said.
Saunders frequently spoke over Magnin during cross-examination Friday and he appeared to become frustrated at times, taking off on long tangents when Magnin asked for “yes” or “no” answers to questions.
“This would go a lot quicker if you answer the questions,” Justice Steven Wilson told Saunders.
“I just think it’s important for me to be able to share my side of things after five years of a number of different accusations and incorrect information that has been shared over social media and the news about what I did,” Saunders said. “I’ve acknowledged what I did. I did cooperate from day one with the government with what I did. I pled guilty to the fraudulent activity and misappropriation of funds.
“But at no time did I put any youth in harms way and take money that they were entitled to or intended for them.”
When pressed about his memory of specific events, on several occasions Saunders would initially claim he did, before changing his tune when asked for details.
While he said Thursday he had no memory of one of the people Victim G lived with in 2013, he claimed Friday to have specific memories of visiting this person’s home after he was shown evidence of an Independent Living Agreement that approved biweekly $200 payments to the person housing Victim G. Saunders stole this money, but he claims the Independent Living Agreement should never have been approved in that situation, as the residence was “unapproved” and Victim G was “very, very irresponsible.”
Magnin suggested Friday that Saunders never took any steps to determine if this living situation could be approved, and become eligible to receive the independent living support funding. Despite having no memory of the person Thursday, Saunders said Friday that he now remembers visiting the person to “look into the home” before deeming it not appropriate.
“Yesterday, you didn’t even remember who [this person] was … and today you recall very specific details of your interactions with her at the time that [Victim G] was living there,” Magnin said.
“Ya, there’s a lot of things I remember along the way,” Saunders replied.
“I continue to suggest sir, that in fact this whole interaction is a complete fabrication,” Magnin said.
“You can suggest that but I know that I had this conversation,” Saunders said.
Another youth Saunders created an Independent Living Agreement for in 2013 – Victim F – was employed, attending school at the time, and had returned to live with his father. But Saunders maintained Friday that the youth was not eligible for the Independent Living Agreement funding that Saunders had stole in Victim F’s name.
Saunders says he forged Victim F’s signature on the Independent Living Agreement, but Magnin suggested Saunders had Victim F sign the document and open a joint bank account with him, before telling the youth he was not eligible for the funding because he was living with his father in an “unapproved” residence. Magnin said Saunders then collected the monthly support payments for himself.
Saunders denied this. While Magnin characterized Victim F as “doing well” at the time – and presumably being responsible enough to handle independent living funding – Saunders said the young man had mental health and addiction issues, as he was a “chronic daily marijuana smoker,” and chose to live with his father who had recently spent time in jail.
While Magnin had hoped to complete her cross-examination of Saunders Friday, the hearing is now expected to spill into next week. A sentencing date has not yet been set for Saunders.