Ashley Burke: Golden Oaks scandal was my biggest 2013 story

As we close the books on 2013, we invited our CBC Ottawa reporters to share some of the most memorable stories they told over the year. Ashley Burke recalls spending a lot of time covering Golden Oaks, a rent-to-own property company that went bust in the summer.

Rent-to-own company scandal involves $27M, more than 100 people

As we close the books on 2013, we invited our CBC Ottawa reporters to share some of the most memorable stories they've told over the year. Ashley Burke spent a lot of time covering Golden Oaks, a rent-to-own property company that went bust this summer. 

More than 100 investors, tenants and contractors are out more than $27 million.

The following are her thoughts about the story:

Jean-Claude Lacasse is facing millions of dollars in lawsuits. (Supplied photo)

"For me, this story was important because of just how many people had lost money with Golden Oaks. When I first started looking into this story, I knew of just one investor whose money was in jeopardy. He had invested thousands into Golden Oaks and wasn't getting any of the returns he had been promised.

But that turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The more people I called, the bigger the story got.

There were more than 100 people who had invested in Golden Oaks, including lawyers, real estate agents and mortgage brokers, and then I went down to the courthouse to check filings for Golden Oaks. That's when I discovered the lawsuits more than 18 people had filed.

There were also the tenants who were really caught in the middle of this. And those were some of the saddest stories.

One family, Chantal Scott and James Cronier, they have six kids and couldn't afford to buy a house the traditional way. So they invested in this rent-to-own deal, through Golden Oaks, thinking that in a few years they would become the owners. So for them it was a dream come true to be able to afford a two-story home in Orleans.

But shortly after moving in, and putting $10,000 down up front, Chantal and James got a call that changed everything. It was from an investors in Golden Oaks, telling them he had a mortgage on their house, and giving them three days to get out. And that was it, Chantal and James had to move out, losing their $10,000 deposit as well the rent they paid on the home.

Ashley Burke

The owner of the company is a guy called J.C.Lacasse. When I started investigating this story, he was living at this $2-million mansion on the Rideau River, and I got to know that house pretty well. I spent many hours sitting outside, waiting for Lacasse to show up. He wouldn't answer our calls, the Golden Oaks business office was abandoned and locked up, so the only way to get his side of this story was to stake him out.

We never actually managed to talk to him in person, either on camera or by phone. He did send me an email once, apologizing for what happened to Chantal and James, and saying he was tying to reorganize Golden Oaks finances. And then he stopped communicating with anyone, the investors, the tenants and even the court. He has never shown up at any of the court dates associated with Golden Oaks.

After my stories aired, some of the investors got together and decided to ask the court to appoint a receiver to take over Golden Oaks. None of them were getting their money and no one from Golden Oaks would call them back. The situation had spiralled out of control and a bankruptcy trustee came in to clean up the mess. That means he's taken over the company and is trying to sell off what he can to get people some of their money back.

But it's not looking great. The company doesn't have many assets, mostly homes with multiple mortgages on them. They're now being sold off.

Everyone I talked to who met Lacasse was completely taken by him. He was charming, personable, and they trusted him. But the other factor was greed. Many of the investors were people with money, people who could afford to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, in the hopes of making huge returns. Lacasse was promising people a 30-per-cent return on their investment after three months, plus the money they put down. Clearly, it was a deal that was too good to be true. But people wanted to believe it.

I have also learned that some of the investors may have actually known more about what was going on at Golden Oaks and stayed silent. The receiver has told me it looks like some investors may have been receiving a commission to bring in other investors.

So this story is still not over."