Accountability

Political interference may have helped scuttle investigation of Canadian corporation

Ottawa MP Andrew Leslie intervened in independent process to support wealthy ‘friends’
Photo: Andrew Leslie / Facebook
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For years, a Swiss NGO has alleged wrongdoing by a collection of Ottawa-headquartered real estate and investment companies and reached out to authorities in numerous jurisdictions. It filed a complaint in Canada in January 2016, alleging the companies were not meeting the financial disclosure guidelines set out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The complaint was made to Canada’s OECD National Contact Point (NCP), a little-known committee chaired by Global Affairs Canada that reviews cases involving Canadian multinational companies.

In the end, the complaint was rejected, after Liberal MP Andrew Leslie intervened on behalf of the companies’ owners, Jamilah Taib Murray and Sean Murray. The NCP initially criticized Leslie’s involvement, then erased any reference to it from a revised final report.

But this wasn’t the first time the committee had made what was supposed to be a final decision.

In the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, the case highlights Canada’s hands-off approach to regulating multinational corporations, and the ease with which powerful companies can call on political allies in government to intervene in ostensibly independent processes.

The OECD’s top anti-bribery official has criticized the handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, arguing that it amounts to “interference with prosecutorial autonomy.” While the NCP is far from a court of law, it is the forum for oversight of Canadian multinationals’ adherence to OECD guidelines, which “represent the only multilaterally-endorsed comprehensive code of conduct that 48 countries including Canada, have committed to promote.”

For his part, Leslie doesn’t see a problem with his intervention in the NCP process.

“I would consider them, among many, to be my friends,” Leslie told Ricochet regarding his relationship with the Murrays following a meet-and-greet event in his riding in early December 2018. “The corrected record will show that it’s the MP’s responsibility to advocate on behalf of their citizens.”

Contacted again by Ricochet before publication, Leslie declined the opportunity to comment further. A staffer said the MP had “nothing to add to the story.”

‘Dialogue’ and conflict

Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF), a Swiss NGO that focuses on protection of rainforests and the people who live in them, filed the complaint against “Sakto Group,” comprised of companies owned and controlled by Jamilah Taib Murray and her husband, Sean Murray.

BMF and the Murrays have a history of contentious relations.

TIMELINE OF DOCUMENTS REFERENCED IN THIS STORY Letters were obtained from a legal brief and evidence presented by Sakto’s lawyers to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. The NCP’s decisions are publicly available. November 14, 2015 Letter from MP Andrew Leslie to minister of international trade (referenced in letter dated March 20, 2018) July 11, 2017 NCP’s first final decision March 20, 2018 Letter from MP Andrew Leslie to minister of international trade May 11, 2018 NCP’s second final decision May 28, 2018 Letter from MP Andrew Leslie to Jamilah Taib Murray and Sean Murray

In the early 1980s, Jamilah Taib Murray received money to start a Canadian real estate business from her father, billionaire Abdul Taib Mahmud, who was then chief minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. For years, BMF has alleged that during his multi-decade tenure as chief minister, illicit kickbacks from logging concessions were pocketed by corrupt officials and siphoned overseas. BMF also alleges that millions of dollars with unclear origins have been funnelled into his daughter’s Ottawa-headquartered businesses. These allegations are unproven, and neither Taib nor his family members have been charged with any wrongdoing.

BMF’s attempt to have an Ontario court force Sakto to release financial records was dismissed in early 2018. Later that year, the Murrays and Sakto sued BMF for defamation in a Swiss court and sought an injunction to ban over 250 publications by the group, including a report that urged Canadian authorities to prosecute the Murrays. The lawsuit is ongoing, but the request for an injunction was rejected last month.

In 2016, BMF lodged a complaint with the NCP, arguing that Sakto was not adhering to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. These guidelines state that companies should disclose information “regarding their activities, structure, financial situation, performance, ownership and governance.” Unlike the U.K., Canada has no public access to the financial records of private corporations, which allows for selective portrayals of corporate activity.

The NCP made a final decision on the Sakto case on May 11, 2018. With no indication of the merit of the complaint, the committee simply concluded that it could not help facilitate dialogue between BMF and Sakto.

The case was effectively dismissed. But this wasn’t the first time the committee had made what was supposed to be a final decision.

Close ties between Rockcliffe families

Though retired general Andrew Leslie lives in the wealthy neighbourhood of Rockcliffe Park in Canada’s capital, he is actually the MP for the eastern Ottawa riding of Orleáns. Rockcliffe Park, also home to the Murrays, is part of the Ottawa-Vanier riding.

The Leslie and Murray families maintain close ties. Leslie’s daughter, Pippa, was a resident in Sofia House in London, England, in the summer of 2017. Court records in the U.K. indicate that Ridgeford Properties, a company owned by the Murrays, is the “development and project property manager” for Sofia House, an apartment building in the upscale Fitzrovia district in central London.

“My daughter is friends with their family, and that’s how she found out about this opportunity to stay while she was studying in London,” Leslie told Ricochet. “And quite properly, she paid rent with a contract.”

When asked about their relationship with Leslie, Jamilah Taib Murray and Sean Murray declined to comment directly, but a legal representative sent a statement.

“Sakto reached out to Andrew Leslie as the Member of Parliament at the time for Ottawa-Vanier to make him aware of the OECD proceedings,” wrote lawyer Duncan Fraser in an email.

In a personal letter to the Murrays dated May 28, 2018, Leslie said that they had asked him for help as the MP “overseeing the Ottawa-Vanier riding office” in November 2016. Leslie recounted that the Murrays had drawn his attention to “the troubling campaign against you and your family by the Swiss activist group Bruno Manser Fonds.”

The acting MP

But Leslie’s involvement in the Sakto case predates 2016.

In a letter to François-Philippe Champagne, minister of international trade, dated March 20, 2018, Leslie stated that he had written to Champagne’s predecessor on Nov. 14, 2015 — before BMF had officially lodged its complaint.

According to Leslie, he had written in 2015 in his capacity as chief government whip and “acting-MP for Ottawa-Vanier.” The MP for the riding at the time was Mauril Bélanger, who was sick with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Official correspondence from that period indicates that Bélanger, who died in 2016, was still acting as MP for Ottawa-Vanier.

It was critical of Sakto for mounting an “aggressive challenge of the NCP’s jurisdiction.”

Ricochet has been unable to confirm an official transfer of duties from Bélanger to Leslie. Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University, and Bill Cross, the Bell Chair for the Study of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton, said they are unaware of any official “acting MP” status. The director of communications for the Speaker of the House of Commons, Heather Bradley, also said she had never heard of any such formal designation.

However, it is not unusual for the chief government whip to step in and assume some duties when an MP is incapacitated. “In the event of a vacancy — due to illness, resignation or other — the relevant Whip manages the office,” said Jared Valdes, special assistant (committees) at the Chief Government Whip’s Office, in an email.

Final statement scrubbed

The first time that Canada’s OECD NCP came to a decision about the Sakto case, it issued a statement that differed in major ways from the one issued in 2018.

This first statement, dated July 11, 2017, agreed that the collection of companies controlled by the Murrays qualified as a multinational entity, as they had “economic activities and business links of an international nature and ties with companies in at least one foreign jurisdiction.” This made them subject to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which ask for a higher level of information disclosure than Sakto had been willing to meet.

The statement also listed problems that had arisen during the NCP process. It was critical of Sakto for mounting an “aggressive challenge of the NCP’s jurisdiction,” noting that Sakto had involved an MP in the confidential process and that Sakto’s legal counsel had made submissions to Canada’s Deputy Minister of Justice. BMF was chastised for breaching confidentiality during the process by publishing an initial draft assessment and for drawing inappropriate media attention to it.

Eight months after the NCP’s decision, Leslie wrote his letter to Champagne. In it, he defended his intervention in the NCP process and told the minister of international trade that BMF had a “vendetta” against Abdul Taib Mahmud, who remains a controversial political leader in Malaysia.

The parent company of Ridgeford Properties was City Gate International, a Canadian firm headquartered at the same address as Sakto and also controlled by the Murrays.

Leslie then suggested that the minister’s office “conduct an investigation into the conduct of the relevant officials” handling the NCP process. It is unknown if anything came of this proposed investigation.

But the NCP revised its statement and released another final decision — this one several pages shorter than the original.

All references to “multinational” were removed, as was any mention of Sakto involving an MP and making submissions to the Department of Justice. The criticism of BMF for releasing the initial draft document remained.

This second final decision by the NCP marked the end of its investigation.

Writing personally to the Murrays after the committee’s decision, Leslie stated that he was glad to have been “able to assist you in raising this issue with the Minister of International Trade and his department.”

“This entire process must have been extremely difficult,” said Leslie in the letter, dated May 28, 2018, asking the Murrays to “accept my congratulations and my thanks for your community engagement.”

Multinational exposure

The greatest concern for Leslie and the Murrays appeared to be that the NCP agreed that the Sakto business empire had multinational exposure, which would make it subject to OECD guidelines.

The committee had good reason for believing that the Murrays controlled multinational enterprises, according to publicly available records in the United Kingdom.

From 2003 to 2006, the Murrays’ flagship real estate company in Ottawa, Sakto Corporation — which includes in its Ottawa holdings three office towers and a condominium complex — provided millions of pounds in unsecured loans to the U.K.’s Ridgeford Properties. At that time, the parent company of Ridgeford Properties was City Gate International, a Canadian firm headquartered at the same address as Sakto and also controlled by the Murrays.

Ridgeford Properties has since been rolled up into Ridgeford Developments, which has as its parent company Urban Sky Investments, another Canadian corporation headquartered at the same Ottawa address as Sakto. And as with City Gate international and Sakto, Urban Sky is controlled by the Murrays.

Preston Square in Ottawa is a real estate development owned by Sakto.
Timothy Wilson

A complex web of companies

A significant amount of capital moves freely between these Canadian entities and their U.K. subsidiaries.

Publicly available records show that over the years City Gate has helped finance Ridgeford Properties, and Urban Sky has provided loans to Ridgeford Management. It is unknown whether the Murrays shared this information with the NCP, given that disclosure to the committee is voluntary.

Sakto “does no business whatsoever outside Ontario” and “there is no legal or factual basis” for any statements to the contrary, wrote the corporation’s legal representative, Duncan Fraser, in a letter to another media organization.

That may be true at present. However, publicly available records show that in 2003, Sakto had almost £600,000 in unsecured loans with Ridgeford Properties. In 2004, the amount was over £2 million. In 2005, it was over £1.1 million. And in 2006, Sakto had a loan of almost £1.3 million on Ridgeford Properties’ balance sheet.

It is rare for Canadian corporations to face thorough investigation.

Ridgeford Properties was formed in 1997. In the company’s early years, Tess Investments, a firm in the British Virgin Islands, injected millions of pounds of mostly interest-free and open-ended loans into it. Tess Investments was then on Ridgeford Properties’ books, providing cash loans and promissory notes, until 2013, when Ridgeford Properties was rolled up into Ridgeford Developments.

The transfer of wealth from the British Virgin Islands to Canada dates back to 2001, when 99 ordinary shares in Ridgeford Properties were swapped from Astar Properties, a corporation in the British Virgin Islands, to City Gate International. On the same day, one remaining share was transferred from Tagus Investments in the British Virgin Islands, also to City Gate International.

With this swap of a hundred shares in 2001, it appears that complete financial control of Ridgeford Properties in the U.K. was shifted from the British Virgin Islands to Canada and the Murrays. This legacy continues with Ridgeford Developments.

Publicly available records do not show where the British Virgin Islands funds initially came from. British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, based on her own research, has suggested links between the British Virgin Islands investor and the Taib family’s wealth, but the facts remain unclear.

It is rare for Canadian corporations to face thorough investigation or consequences in cases where wrongdoing is found, as the string of failed prosecutions of top SNC-Lavalin officials demonstrate. When they do, there appears to be little to prevent Canadian politicians — from the Prime Minister’s office down to individual MPs — from intervening to shield corporations from scrutiny.

Editors' note: After publication, Ricochet received an email from Duncan Fraser, legal counsel for Sakto, stating that the headline of this piece is misleading. He objected to use of the word “investigation” because the OECD NCP review process is “a voluntary forum to bring parties together to discuss and mutually address a matter that falls within the limited mandate of the OCED Guidelines on Multi-National Enterprises.”

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