Once a wheeler-dealer in Dubai's glittering skyscrapers, now accused of bilking teenagers out of wages in a rural saloon, Sunanda Kikla has taken an ignominious tumble.

In the spring of 2016, Kikla and her husband Nitai Goswami moved to Greenwood, B.C., where he purchased three prominent businesses, which she then ran.

Kikla

Sunanda Kikla (LinkedIn)

With its historic Old West downtown, Greenwood is a charming community of 800 people located about 150 km southeast of Kelowna. It bills itself as Canada's Smallest City -- a moniker referring to its incorporation during the copper rush of 1897.

Locals say they weren't paid for work

But Greenwood's new residents face a barrage of accusations from locals, plus a host of legal problems, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Those problems include defunct businesses, a foreclosure, and complaints with the Employment Standards Branch. 

The financial story of Sunanda Kikla starts years ago in Dubai, where in the late 1990s, she was a top insurance broker for an affiliate of Zurich International Life.

By 2009, Kikla was living in the Lower Mainland, where she started the Fraser Valley Community College, a private educational institution.

The college soon faced complaints from students who alleged a "rip-off," and from employees who were not paid.

In October of 2015, the College was shut down by government regulators, who Kikla then sued, representing herself in court. Her lawsuit was dismissed, and the judge declared Kikla a vexatious litigant, barring her from filing further lawsuits in B.C. without permission of the court.

Defeated in court, and with the college defunct, Kikla and Goswami moved to Greenwood, B.C., where they purchased three local businesses: the Greenwood Motel, the Pacific Grill, and the Windsor Hotel — known locally as "the Saloon."

When the family arrived in Greenwood, the local business community was optimistic. But things quickly went sour.

In addition, CBC has spoken to four former employees who say they were not paid, and one who says he was intimidated or threatened after he complained.

"When you see me, stay far away"

In the summer of 2016, Jordan Stevens, 20, was waiting for cardiac surgery to repair a defective heart valve.

Jordan

Jordan Stevens says he was paid $238 for a month's work (Facebook)

Finding work hasn't always been easy for Stevens, who also has a speech impediment and a learning disability. But he completed his FoodSafe designation, and was happy to get a job as a cook at the Windsor Hotel. He earned minimum wage, but got plenty of shifts, working at least 40 hours a week.

He claims he was only paid a fraction of what he was owed.

"We had an agreement that I would get 25 per cent of the tips every day," said Stevens in a telephone interview from his home in Greenwood. "But every night, before the end of the shift, all the money in the tip jar just disappeared."

In addition to the lost tips, Stevens says for a month's work he was only paid $238. He eventually quit in frustration.

"I didn't argue," said Stevens. "I was dealing with my heart surgery, and it was too much ... It was rough."

But Stevens did warn others on a community Facebook page. Shortly thereafter he started receiving threatening messages from the Facebook profile of Sameer Kikla, Sunanda's son. Screenshots of those messages were provided to CBC.

The messages called Stevens a "goon" and a "retard."

"When you see me, stay far away," one message warned.

CBC contacted Mr. Kikla on Facebook, but the profile was deleted shortly thereafter.

Stevens says the stress affected his health. "I didn't sleep because they didn't live that far from us. It's a small town," he said.

Stevens says he lodged a complaint with the local RCMP, but he says nothing ever came of it. The RCMP declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.

Jordan Stevens is still waiting for heart surgery, and still looking for another job.

Employee moved family from Alberta

That same summer of 2016, a thousand kilometres away, Shelly Glaubitz had fallen on hard times.

Shelly

Shelly Glaubitz moved her family from Alberta, only to quit over alleged unpaid wages. (Facebook)

She lived in northern Alberta with her husband and 11-year-old daughter. Her husband had been laid off when the energy industry faltered, and they were both looking for work.

In September, a friend in B.C. suggested the Greenwood Motel.

"So I came down, and started working. I moved down on September 15th, and started the very next day," she said.

Glaubitz says Sunanda Kikla agreed to pay her a salary of $2000 per month.

"I worked for her pretty much every single day. Seven or eight hours a day. I was cleaning the hotel, and I was going in and cleaning her personal space upstairs and her bedrooms and her bathrooms and doing her laundry," she told CBC.

Ten days into the job, Glaubitz moved her family from Alberta to Greenwood. She says Kikla gave her a $550 advance to cover the moving costs.

But Glaubitz claims that was her one and only paycheque.

At the end of the month, she says Kikla refused to pay her the rest of her salary. Instead, Glaubitz says Kikla accused her of running up a tab at the restaurant, a charge she vigorously denies.

She quit, and she launched a complaint with the Employment Standards Branch. Her file is still open, and a hearing is scheduled for February 15.

"Gross behaviour"

Similar allegations were made by 17-year-old Kyle Schwaier. He worked part-time for Kikla from late August until late October, cooking at the Windsor Hotel.

At first, he was paid, but not regularly. He also says he was never provided official pay stubs showing income tax, EI or CPP deductions, but was instead paid by email money transfer.  

By mid-September, even those payments dried up. Schwaier claims he's owed for 60 hours of work, totaling over $600. He stopped working for the couple on October 18th.

In an email to Schwaier dated December 8, 2016, Kikla says "I will draw up the slip and [will] transfer [it to] you." Schwaier says the money never came.

But Schwaier didn't lodge an official complaint.

"It's embarrassing, but no. I'm a pretty anxious person. I don't know how a lot of things work," he said. "Maybe I should have advocated for myself more."

Schwaier just wants people to know how Kikla and Nitai treated their employees.

"It's really gross behaviour," he said. "And it's not fair to a lot of people, especially in rural communities like this, buy up all of the business, and then never pay anyone. It kind of ruins the town, and it makes it hard for people to live comfortably."

Reporter questions "stupid and irrelevant"

CBC reached Sunanda Kikla by calling Goswami's number.

"I don't have any businesses in Greenwood. You must have some wrong information," she said, before hanging up.

A call to the Greenwood Motel was similarly unsuccessful.

motel

The Greenwood Motel is the last business owned by Nitai Goswami that's still open

"We're not answering any of your questions because they're stupid and irrelevant," said an unidentified woman. "Don't call this number again," she said, before hanging up.

Further attempts to contact Sunanda Kikla, her son Sameer, and her husband Goswami by phone, email and social media were unsuccessful.

The Pacific Grill and the Windsor Hotel are now closed.

International past, foreclosure at home

Allegations against Sunanda Kikla go well beyond Greenwood, well beyond B.C., and well beyond Canada.

In 2002, a glowing profile in the Gulf News chronicled how Kikla founded Oracle Insurance Brokers in Dubai and rose to the top of her profession. 

By 2004, however, the company was in trouble with insurance regulators in the United Arab Emirates, who issued a warning to other brokers after alleging Oracle had entered into financial arrangements with unregistered companies.

In 2009, now living in the Lower Mainland, Kikla and Goswami established the Fraser Valley Community College.

In 2012, she founded another company called Global Training Consultants, which according to Kikla's LinkedIn page operated for just over a year. 

A 2014 report in the Liberian Observer Newspaper said Kikla was jailed briefly in Monrovia on fraud allegations after travelling to the country to assist applicants to her college.

That case was dropped because of irregularities with court paperwork. By that time, the college was already mired in lawsuits and complaints from students, regulators, and employees.

Two employees of Fraser Valley Community College, Vandana Khetarpal and Harpreet Thind, won their cases at the Employment Standards Tribunal and were awarded $6953.10 and $6913.77 respectively.

Despite Kikla and Goswami's recent move to Greenwood, the couple's legal problems in the Lower Mainland persist. Kikla and her company Global Training Consultants are being sued in foreclosure proceedings by the North Shore Credit Union.

The next court hearing in that matter is set for January 25, 2017.

Update

In an email to the CBC after the story was first published, Nitai Chand Goswami said the claims were false and baseless.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story referred to threats made against an employee. In fact, the alleged threats were made from the Facebook profile of the couple's son. It also referred to liens against properties in Greenwood. Liens are not necessarily indicative of financial problems.
    Jan 23, 2017 4:51 PM PT