Vancouver real estate developer has avoided fraud trial for 16 years

Investigation: Accused in 2008 of masterminding one of B.C.’s largest real estate frauds, Vancouver property developer Tarsem Gill has never faced the charges at trial. He has, however, remained very active in B.C. real estate in the years since, attracting recent allegations of fraud.

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It pained Emi Herawati to cut back on the money she regularly sent to her family back in Indonesia, including her seven-year-old grandson, but she was left with no choice after she lost her retirement savings.

Herawati spent years working 12-hour days running a salon and spa in east Vancouver. After COVID-19 hammered her business, she closed up shop and sold her house to fund her retirement. The notary public who worked with her on the property sale told her he could help her invest the money from the transaction, according to an investigation by the B.C. Society of Notaries Public.

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That notary, Jitendra Desai, then “brokered a deal” for Herawati to take the net proceeds from the sale of her home — totalling $200,000 — and invest it as a mortgage loan on a residential property in Vancouver, the regulator has alleged in a continuing disciplinary matter against Desai.

Herawati, a 62-year-old widow with limited English skills, was described by the regulator as “vulnerable.” Desai told Herawati that “the borrowers were ‘solid’ borrowers, but failed to advise the total amount of mortgages exceeded the value of the property on which (she) was lending.”

Vancouver, BC: MAY 30, 2024 -- Emi Herawati in Burnaby, BC Thursday, May 30, 2024. Herawati was swindled of several hundred thousand dollars by an accused fraudster. (Photo by Jason Payne/ PNG) (For story by Dan Fumano) [PNG Merlin Archive]
Emi Herawati in Burnaby on May 30. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

The paperwork said the borrower was Surinder Gill, but the point of contact was always Surinder’s husband, Tarsem Singh Gill, Herawati said. At the time, she didn’t realize he was the man accused, 16 years earlier, of orchestrating one of the largest real estate frauds in Canadian history.

When Herawati wasn’t repaid on time as per their agreement, she raised concerns with Desai over several months in 2023.

“He would always say, ‘I’ll take care of it, I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,’ ” Herawati said.

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Eventually, in response to her concerns, Desai arranged a meeting last September in his Vancouver office with Gill and Herawati as well as her friend, Mike Brown, who was helping her through the process. By that time, Brown had researched Gill’s background, and when he raised the five outstanding criminal charges at the meeting, Gill calmly replied with something like: “They’ve been trying to get me for years. And I’m still standing,” said Brown.

“When he said that, I wanted to jump across the desk and strangle him,” Brown said recently.

The infuriating thing about Gill’s comment, Brown said, is that it was true.

prv072903Gill02 -- Vancouver -- July 29 2003 -- see cityside by Adrienne Tanner -- Tarsem gill outside houses under construction in the 2500 block of W40th. Province staff photo by Gerry Kahrmann ** CONFIRM ID WITH REPORTER *** [PNG Merlin Archive]
Property developer Tarsem Gill outside a construction site in Vancouver on July 29, 2003. Photo by Gerry Kahrmann /Province

‘Incredibly unlikely’

Herawati took her case to the police. After the file was forwarded to the Vancouver Police Department’s financial crime unit for review, an officer emailed her offering sympathy, but urging her to contact a civil lawyer instead.

“I agree there have been components of fraud in this situation, however establishing responsibility to the level required by the courts is incredibly unlikely at this time,” the VPD officer wrote.

In fact, the VPD had already looked into Gill. A generation ago. After Vancouver police were alerted to a massive fraud in 2002, they mounted what was described as the largest commercial crime investigation in the department’s history. They eventually enlisted the RCMP’s help with the probe, which led to criminal charges being laid in 2008 against Gill and his lawyer, Martin Wirick.

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Those charges against Gill are now old enough to drive. But they have never been tested.

Gill, the Vancouver property developer accused of orchestrating what was described as one of B.C.’s largest real estate scams and the biggest legal fraud in Canadian history, has yet to stand trial 22 years after the alleged scam was exposed and Wirick was disbarred, 16 years after Gill was arrested and charged, 11 years after he pleaded guilty to defrauding victims of $31 million, and 10 years after a judge allowed him to withdraw that guilty plea.

The reversal of the guilty plea in 2014 meant Gill needed to stand trial. But that trial never happened, and the B.C. Prosecution Service couldn’t provide a timeline for when a trial might happen.

Gill’s lawyers have made a series of pre-trial appearances in court over the years. The accused fraudster’s next pre-trial conference is scheduled for July 9 at the Vancouver Law Courts, coincidentally just two weeks before a disciplinary hearing is scheduled for Desai, who has been accused by the notaries’ regulatory body of helping Gill defraud people over the past 10 years.

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But the notoriety Gill earned two decades ago doesn’t seem to have stopped his business.

‘A very sad commentary on our justice system’ 

Documents in recent regulatory proceedings show that in the decade since Gill withdrew his guilty plea, he has continued to orchestrate dozens of multimillion-dollar real estate transactions around the Vancouver area that have been described by the Law Society of B.C. as “suspicious” and by the Society of Notaries Public as fraud. He has also been accused in civil court of fraud in a continuing lawsuit. Those allegations haven’t been proven in court.

Desai and a lawyer who worked with Gill have both recently been the subject of disciplinary action from regulators over their work with him, with no apparent consequences for Gill himself. The regulatory organization for notaries has alleged that Desai helped Gill defraud an unknown number of victims over the past decade.

Wirick and Gill were both arrested and charged in 2008. Wirick co-operated with the Law Society and police, pleaded guilty in 2009 for his part in more than 100 fraudulent real estate transactions between 1999 and 2002, and was sentenced to seven years in jail.

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At Wirick’s sentencing hearing, the judge read from statements submitted by the victims, noting “several common themes run through them including the devastating emotional impact brought about by ongoing uncertainty regarding the status of their homes; the words ‘panic,’ ‘despair,’ ‘stress’ and ‘depression’ appear frequently.”

The agreed statement of facts submitted at sentencing described Wirick’s role facilitating the purchase, sale and refinancing of properties for an unnamed “developer/client” — which is Gill — with money that was supposed to go to discharging mortgages “instead fraudulently transferred by the accused to one of the developer/client’s companies or otherwise to the developer/client’s benefit.” Wirick filed forged documents filed at the Land Title Office in an attempt to cover up his crimes.

North Vancouver- September 18, 2002 - David Baines story - Former lawyer Martin Wirick now works at a North Vancouver pet food manufacturing plant. (Glenn Baglo/Vancouver Sun) [PNG Merlin Archive]
Former lawyer Martin Wirick, left, is shown on the doorstep of his North Vancouver home, speaking to Vancouver Sun columnist David Baines, right, in a 2002 photograph. Photo by GLENN BAGLO /VANCOUVER SUN

“The scheme was complex. Much like a house of cards, with each card propping up another in a structure that would inevitably collapse under its own weight, the frauds were intertwined,” said a 2008 article in the

Law Society’s in-house publication

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.

A five-week trial for Gill was scheduled in May 2013, but days before it was set to begin, the accused fraudster entered a surprise, last-minute guilty plea to defrauding 77 homebuyers and 30 lenders of more than $31 million. At that time, Vancouver Sun columnist David Baines, who filed dozens of stories about Gill and Wirick over a decade, wrote that he didn’t believe that Gill “deserves much credit for the guilty plea,” pointing out that by then the court had already scheduled four different trials over three years, only for each to be “adjourned due to some Gill-inspired delay.”

It was one of Baines’s final columns for the newspaper before his retirement weeks later. Reached this week, Baines said it’s “a very sad commentary on our justice system” that Gill has been able to evade trial for so long.

“This was a horrendous financial fraud that claimed many victims,” said Baines, who exposed and investigated some of Canada’s largest frauds.

“The tail has wagged the dog throughout this entire process,” Baines said. “It started very early in the game when Gill repeatedly switched lawyers, which prompted a series of delays. Then we had the reversal of his guilty plea. And here we are now, more than a decade later, with no trial and no result. The Crown and judiciary may be able to rationalize these inordinate delays, but in the end they are just excuses for a very distressing level of individual and institutional ineptitude.”

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No one at the B.C. Prosecution Service was available for an interview. Asked for an explanation about the delays in Gill’s case, a Crown spokesperson said in an emailed statement: “There have been a series of pre-trial applications, which have been time-consuming.”

$32,000 on photocopy paper and ‘a century of losses’

When Wirick’s scam came to light in 2002, “it shook the whole system,” recalls Richard Gibbs, who was president of the Law Society of B.C. at the time.

Gibbs worked with a team of lawyers, forensic accountants and fraud investigators to audit Wirick’s books. The size of the investigation was unprecedented. The society had people copying documents all day, Gibbs recalled this week, and within a couple of months, the society had spent $32,000 on photocopy paper alone.

The Law Society had a special fund to compensate victims of lawyer theft or fraud. But those losses were typically thousands or occasionally in the hundreds of thousands, Gibbs said, and very rarely exceeding a million. In 2002, the society’s entire fund at the time totalled $7 million — a fraction of the amount lost by victims of Wirick’s frauds.

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There was no legal obligation for the lawyers to pay back that money to victims of Wirick’s fraud, Gibbs recalled this week, but the Law Society’s directors in 2002 did some “soul-searching about what was in the public interest” and decided they had a “moral obligation” to compensate the victims.

That meant B.C. lawyers had to each pitch in hundreds of dollars a year for several years into the fund to repay $38 million to Wirick’s victims, after receiving more than 500 claims. This idea wasn’t popular with every lawyer, but Gibbs says: “It was the right decision as far as I’m concerned.”

Gibbs and some of the society’s other directors then travelled around B.C. to explain to lawyers what was happening, he recalls.

“When I did the road shows and presented about what was going on with Wirick, I would routinely refer to it as a century of losses in one claim.”

Now, Gibbs is “at a loss,” he says, as to why Gill’s prosecution hasn’t yet proceeded to trial, 10 years after he withdrew his guilty plea, although he understands why the Prosecution Service can’t share more information about the delays.

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“I’m intrigued. I’ve never heard of a delay of 10 years,” Gibbs said. “It’s more than unusual, it’s extraordinary.”

‘Why is he still walking around a free man?’

When South African lawyer Paul De Lange immigrated to Canada in 2006, part of his training through the Law Society of B.C. to become certified to practise law in Canada involved reading about Wirick’s fraud, he recalled this week. It was required reading for people like him looking to practise in B.C.

But, De Lange said recently, when he took on Tarsem Gill as a client in 2015, he didn’t realize Gill was Wirick’s client and co-accused in the matter he had read about.

De Lange surrendered his law licence in late 2022 after a misconduct investigation, and admitted to the Law Society of B.C. that between 2015 and 2018 he allowed 65 transactions involving Gill and his associates to pass through his trust account, receiving $21 million and disbursing $1.6 million.

De Lange admitted to the society that he failed to make reasonable inquiries about the “suspicious circumstances” of the transactions, the disciplinary record shows, including Gill’s involvement as an accused fraudster and undischarged bankrupt, the fact that while Gill “appeared to control the transactions, he was not a director of any of the corporations involved,” and funds were “often paid to corporations who did not appear to have an interest in the transactions.”

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The Law Society disciplinary file says that while De Lange didn’t misappropriate any client trust funds, he failed to “be on guard against becoming the tool or dupe of an unscrupulous client.”

Speaking this week, De Lange said: “The stuff they’re accusing him of happened in 2001. I said to the Law Society at the time (of the misconduct investigation): ‘If he was accused of this fraud and these schemes and everything, then why hasn’t he been found guilty of anything? Why is he still walking around a free man?’ ”

Gill isn’t mentioned by name in the Law Society documents, but referred to only as “T.G.” and his group as “the T.G. Group.” In a recent interview, De Lange confirmed that “T.G.” is Gill.

Many transactions involved several rounds of financing and refinancing, often on short terms, with numbered companies incorporated by Gill or another member of his group on his behalf, the disciplinary file says.

De Lange also worked on the sale of the same Vancouver property where Desai allegedly arranged Herawati’s $200,000 mortgage, according to a continuing civil lawsuit where the family who purchased that property have alleged they lost $1.5 million when they say they were defrauded by Gill with the “professional assistance” of De Lange and Desai. De Lange filed a response on May 30 as did Desai on June 5, both denying any wrongdoing or negligence. Gill has not responded.

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De Lange said the Law Society’s disciplinary action against him was “the best thing that could have happened to me,” because it forced him to step away from his law practice, start retirement early and get his diabetes under control.

Asked if he had sympathy for people like Herawati who lost their savings through their dealings with Gill, De Lange said: “I can’t really comment on that.”

VANCOUVER, BC - June 4, 2024 - 74 West 12thAve in Vancouver, BC, June 4, 2024. Feature about Tarsem Gill, who was accused more than a decade ago of masterminding a massive real estate fraud. (Arlen Redekop / Postmedia staff photo) (Story by Dan Fumano) [PNG Merlin Archive]
A vacant lot at 74 West 12th Avenue in Vancouver. Retiree Emi Herawati lost her investment after she made a loan secured as a mortgage on this property. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

‘What is the cost to society?’

After complaints about Desai, the Society of Notaries Public of B.C. investigated his practice and found he had “collaborated, worked with and provided services to” Gill over the past 10 years, and helped Gill “defraud others,” including Herawati.

Although Herawati’s loss is the only one outlined in the notice of hearing for Desai, the society has reason to believe there were other victims, said society CEO John Mayr, although they couldn’t say how many.

Mayr is also perplexed about why Gill has never had to stand trial and can apparently continue to be so active in the real estate market.

“The police go and do a really good investigation, they get charges approved, and then, through the misuse of the courts and justice system, here we are. And what is the cost to society?” Mayr asked. “How is it in the interest of the rule of law that a lawyer can continue to evade for his client a court date that will settle the matter based on the evidence?”

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Desai’s disciplinary hearing is scheduled for July. He didn’t reply to requests for comment sent through his lawyer.

Mayr said Desai “has not responded at all” to the regulator’s allegations, “except to retain a lawyer very late in the process” days before the originally scheduled disciplinary hearing in May, thereby delaying the matter until July so the lawyer can have time to prepare.

Gill and his lawyer, Kevin McCullough, didn’t respond to Postmedia News’s phone calls or emails.

Long-time Vancouver lawyer Ron Usher isn’t involved in Gill’s case but has followed it closely and attended dozens of the accused fraudster’s court appearances over the years.

“At the beginning of every one of these sessions, the Crown makes it clear that if there’s delays here, it’s not their fault,” Usher said, adding he believes the Crown prosecutors should be commended for the massive effort to keep the prosecution “on the rails” and moving forward, despite the delays.

“It’s the ultimate example of how extremely difficult it is to move forward with complex commercial crime cases,” said Usher, who is general counsel for the Society of Notaries Public of B.C. “There’s endless examples of the difficulties we have in Canada with moving forward with fraud cases, and when (that happens), we’ve lost the deterrence.”

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Gill declared bankruptcy in 2002 with $50 million in debts. Records with Canada’s Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy show that, to this day, Gill has never been discharged from bankruptcy.

Canadian laws are supposed to place restrictions on certain kinds of business activities of people who are still in bankruptcy, Usher said, “but we have, really, no prosecution of the bankruptcy laws.”

“Frankly, the public needs to know about Gill,” he said. “There’s a whole generation of people now who don’t know about the whole backstory. But it’s both a backstory, and a current story.”

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