NEWS

$110M Ponzi scheme winners become losers

02/07/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/08/2015 05:59 EDT
According to the balance sheets, Mark Sicherman was a "net winner" in the Ponzi scheme allegedly run by Rashida Samji.

His wife is Samji's cousin. And a final tally would show they actually gained from their investment.

But along with many other net winners, Sicherman told the B.C. Securities Commission, he and his wife had no idea what was happening. 

They've paid back any profits they made. And the aftermath of the scheme's collapse — given Samji's involvement — has torn their family apart.

"They're calling me a net winner when, you know, I have won the ability to lose sleep, to have my wife lose trust. I will be out a least 100, 200,000 dollars when this is done," he told Samji's securities commission hearing.

"If that makes me a winner, I don't want to win too often. It's been awful."

3 years and counting

More than three years have passed since the BCSC first put out a public warning about Samji, and the dust has yet to settle on the scheme.

The 61-year-old still faces 28 criminal charges of fraud and theft, and Arvindbhai Bakorbhai Patel, the financial planner who allegedly sent 90 clients her way, was charged with violating the Securities Act last month.

By contrast, Bernard Madoff pleaded guilty to fraud and started serving a 150-year sentence in a North Carolina jail within seven months of the discovery of his multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme. But that's the U.S.

According to the BCSC, about 200 people invested money with Samji, who was fined $33 million by the commission in January.

They were told their funds would remain in trust in Canada, used as collateral to provide "letters of comfort" for The Mark Anthony Group to expand wineries into South America and South Africa.

Some investors were promised as much as a 30 per cent return. But most got 12 per cent annually, with the first half paid out within one month.

Investors in tears

According to a spreadsheet filed as part of civil proceedings, investors came from all walks of life: dentists, doctors, school teachers and others.

Former Edmonton Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins and his wife, Ingrid Kavelaars, are listed among the "net losers." 

"The number of times one of my clients broke down and cried in front of me, I can't even count it," said lawyer John Green, who represented multiple victims in one lawsuit.

"About half of my clients couldn't make payments on their houses. If they were making payments, they were having to take in renters to make them."

Green's clients were part of one of the biggest legal claims filed in the wake of the scheme's collapse. He represented many customers of Coast Capital Savings, the bank where Patel worked as a financial planner.

They have reached settlements with a number of banks, including Coast Capital, but the terms are confidential.

The other B.C. Supreme Court claim was a class action lawsuit. The case has also been settled, with a formula that will see investors get back a percentage of their money.

Moral culpability?

Samji claimed she made about $3 million over a decade; in addition to a fine, the BCSC ordered her to pay $10.8 million, the difference missing between total monies in and monies out.

Witnesses at the hearing noted Samji's expensive clothes and jewelry, extravagant lifestyle and constant taking of cruises.

The trustee overseeing Samji's bankruptcy is still in the process of trying to claw cash back from net winners.

One of the biggest payments so far — $2.3 million — came from the estate of Zulfikar Nazarali Chatur, the man Samji claimed initially came up with the idea of an investment scheme.

Her interviews with the BCSC raise questions about the moral culpability of some investors.

Samji told investigators she suspected a handful of people who were getting very high returns on their investments knew something wasn't right. 

Those include an "international banker" who profited by more than $3.6 million; the trustee is still trying to extract money from his overseas bank accounts.

"They are seasoned people, not uneducated people, and it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure some of this out," Samji told investigators. "The discussions I often had were to say the rates were too high, they were not affordable. The precedent was set, so they were not moving from it."

With current low interest rates, Green said, today's Ponzi schemes don't offer high rates of return — which makes them all the harder to spot.

"That's not how most Ponzi schemes are sold," he said. "It will track the interest rates as they go down, and they'll become more elaborate, too."

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