Michael Hilson who died at age 53 as a result of a traffic accident in Las Vegas last month, was a central figure in the eventual unraveling of Hamilton-based Philip Environmental, which was North America’s largest scrap recycler until it collapsed in a sea of debt and falsified financial statements in 1997 and 1998. Hilson had been a mid-level accountant in one of the company’s operating divisions but had been dismissed. He wrote a letter to the Ministry of the Environment opposing Philip’s plan to operate the Taro waste dump in Stoney Creek. In the letter he made passing reference to possible financial irregularities at Philip, which at the time was the darling of Canadian business media, who were completely beguiled by the company’s explosive growth and soaring profits. He was immediately slapped with a $30 Million libel suit and the company secured a gag order on Hilson’s letter. Caralee Hilson vividly remembers when her brother was served with the legal documents. “We were at a wedding in Las Vegas and Michael was the MC, when two guys came in with what looked like wedding gifts, but were actually legal documents. They handed the packages to Michael and said, ‘you’ve been served.’” She added that Michael was actually relieved that it was only legal documents, as he was in continual fear of physical harm at the time.
Hilson was vindicated two years later when the company collapsed, leaving shareholders holding the bag with worthless stock. Company founders Alan and Philip Fracassi were fined and barred from stock trading for 10 years for issuing a false prospectus that raised $360 Million just before the company collapsed. But resuming his career did not come easily for Michael. He ran as a PC candidate unsuccessfully against Sheila Copps in 1997 and was left with campaign debts. “He was virtually unemployable in Hamilton,” recalls Tom Adams an energy consultant, who then was executive director of Energy Probe an energy watchdog. Adams was immediately impressed with Hilson’s brilliance and hired him as a financial analyst. “He had a sense of values of what was right and wrong in public policy. Working with Mike was an intellectual adventure” (Michael was a member of Mensa open to people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on an IQ test.) Adams gives Michael much of the credit for the various papers and articles they worked on. “He made me look good,” Adams recalled. Despite the trauma of the two years of legal limbo both his sister Caralee and Adams remember a man with, as Adams put it—“a riotous sense of humour. We spent most of our time laughing,” although Adams also suggested that the Philips debacle had left Michael with “a kind of PTSD. Humour was part of his healing process.” After Energy Probe, which Adams acknowledged came with “crappy pay,” Michael moved on to act as financial manager for a company owned by cousins in Las Vegas. This required him to travel to Las Vegas several times a year. He wrote his Certified Public Accountant exams in Nevada to allow him to practice there. At the time of his death Hilson was on the verge of “a really exciting employment prospect,” Adams said. “Everybody loved him,” recalls sister Caralee, “he wanted to make things right in the world.” “A lot of people were really touched by this guy,” said Adams. “He did not pass through this world without leaving ripples.”