The Saskatchewan government's land sale to a wholesale megamall developer at the Global Transportation Hub "reeks of desperation" given revelations about that company, Brightenview, and its associates, the opposition NDP says.
CBC News has learned the provincial government suspended an immigration consultant representing a partner in Brightenview's proposed Dundurn megamall, near Saskatoon, in December 2013 for submitting almost 100 fake job offers to the province's immigration program.
Emails and a briefing note obtained by CBC through access to information show megamall developer Brightenview was in partnership with Canmax and its registered immigration consultant, Jun Cheng. Cheng was banned from the program for two years for submitting "non-genuine job offers" and providing the government "misleading and falsified information."
The job offers were part of Cheng's immigration applications on behalf of Chinese nationals seeking permanent residence in Canada.
The premier himself is using this deal as his fig leaf to cover up the GTH land scandal. - Nicole Sarauer, interim leader of the NDP
In addition, documents show that on four separate occasions the government rebuked Brightenview for promotional materials that falsely claimed the government had a special relationship with the company's megamall projects and had promised priority immigration processing for investors in those projects.
Brightenview is pitching its massive wholesale mall to Chinese nationals, telling them that an investment in this project may lead to permanent residence.
The most recent rebuke of Brightenview was May 4, 2017.
Premier claims Brightenview land sale proves GTH is making money
May 4 was the same day Saskatchewan's then-minister of the economy Jeremy Harrison celebrated the ribbon cutting at Brightenview's GTH megamall project.
Harrison wasn't alone in his enthusiasm. In September 2016, Premier Brad Wall spoke at an event in Beijing designed to attract investors to Brightenview's megamall project.
On the eve of the March 2016 election campaign, the government announced a land sale agreement with Brightenview — after it had already rebuked Brightenview twice and had suspended Canmax's immigration consultant.
Throughout that campaign and to this very day, Wall has claimed the Brightenview land sale proves the government didn't overpay when it bought 204 acres of land for the GTH at $103,000 an acre, far more than government appraisals said it was worth.
Wall says Brightenview paid far more than that, which proves "taxpayers are making money."
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"The land after we bought it was selling for $180,000 an acre," Wall told the media last week. "Taxpayers were making $77,000 dollars more an acre."
That's despite the fact government appraisals said the land was worth far less — $30,000 to $60,000 an acre — and the provincial auditor concluded the government significantly overpaid.
The NDP's interim leader, Nicole Sarauer, said it's shocking that Saskatchewan Party politicians were "willing to get into bed with a company that they knew full well were engaging in questionable business practices."
Sarauer said the government got into this deal in order to distract the public from the GTH land deal controversy.
"The premier himself is using this deal as his fig leaf to cover up the GTH land scandal. This is what he's clinging to as his reasoning behind why this isn't a scandal and we should all look away," said Sarauer.
98 fake job offers
As far back as 2013, the government had raised concerns about Brightenview and its business partner Canmax.
Government documents obtained by CBC show that Canmax was a partner in the Dundurn megamall, Brightenview's exclusive agent in China and handled immigration matters for the company.
One translated brochure said, as the strategic partner and agent for Brightenview's Dundurn megamall project, "Canmax will get all immigration procedures done on behalf investors."
CBC has also learned that Canmax's work related to immigration had come under severe scrutiny by the provincial government.
- The China Connection: How the Saskatchewan government partnered with a company linked to a businessman who was wanted by China for fraud
According to a government briefing note, Cheng was initially suspended for submitting fake job offers. A subsequent "investigation involved 45 employers and 98 applicants represented by Mr. Cheng were found ineligible due to invalid job offers."
When reached by CBC months ago, Cheng, who's a registered immigration consultant, acknowledged there were problems with Canmax-related files but he said they weren't his fault. He told CBC that Canmax was using his name without his consent.
"Maybe some cases I didn't sign. They submitted, using my name," Cheng said. "I was not happy with those kinds of things."
In an interview, a legal representative for Canmax acknowledged fake job offers may have been submitted by the company but if they were, they would have been provided to Canmax by a third party.
Cheng said he eventually quit the company. He was also disciplined by the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, which is the national accrediting body for immigration consultants.
When asked about Canmax and the fact it was suspended from the program, Brightenview CEO Joe Zhou wrote "there is no longer a relationship between Brightenview and Canmax and I have no knowledge about those events you talked about."
Brightenview promotions claim 'special relationship' with government
The government has also been concerned about Brightenview's (BDI) conduct specifically.
A briefing note obtained through access to information shows that on May 4, Alastair MacFadden, assistant deputy minister with the Ministry of the Economy, decided to "warn BDI that false or misleading information about BDI or the [Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program] may result in additional scrutiny… and may result in SINP prohibiting BDI and its partners from accessing SINP due to program integrity concerns."
This was the fourth warning issued to Brightenview in the past five years. In 2013, the misrepresentations were related to the company's megamall project at Dundurn. Later, there were false claims made about its megamall at the GTH, called GTEC.
According to a May 24, 2017, briefing note, the first incident was identified in April 2013.
The ministry found Brightenview's literature claimed:
- "BDI has a special relationship with SINP and secured priority processing for Dundurn/GTEC applicants."
- "BDI secured a specified program quota for all Dundurn/GTEC applications."
- "Guaranteed application receipt and processing for all Dundurn/GTEC applicants."
The 2013 incident resulted in a cease and desist letter to Brightenview from the government. There were additional incidents in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In those cases the government issued warnings to the company.
The government briefing note said in those recent cases officials weren't able to determine if the misleading information came from Brightenview directly or from third parties associated with the company.
CBC asked Brightenview officials about these incidents. They did not reply.
Pre-election deal with Brightenview
Despite the ongoing concerns, Brightenview and the GTH began discussing the possibility of working together in 2013. Those discussions continued until 2015, when there was a move toward concluding a deal.
On Dec. 17, 2015, the day after CBC interviewed former GTH minister Bill Boyd about the GTH land deal, there was a flurry of emails arranging a meeting with Brightenview officials.
On Dec. 23, 2015, an email between Laurie Pushor, deputy minister of the economy, Boyd and Joe Donlevy, the premier's then-right-hand man, shows the three were discussing "our strategy moving forward" with Brightenview.
The land sale agreement with Brightenview was signed on Feb. 3, 2016 — the same day CBC broke the GTH land deal story.
Brightenview paid more than double what the Regina businessman paid for the GTH land.
"It seems to me that they were trying to figure out a way that they could justify what we know is a high price for the land and in doing so they were willing to forgo any due diligence," said Sarauer of that deal.
Government defends relationship with Brightenview
Despite these issues, the premier's office wrote "the government of Saskatchewan welcomes the investment Brightenview has made in our province," noting that the company has begun building its megamall at the GTH and has already paid $3 million toward the land.
The email said the government takes the integrity of Saskatchewan's immigration program seriously and considers banning companies from using it if they flout the rules.
However, in the case of Brightenview, the premier's office noted it wasn't clear whether it was actually Brightenview that was doing the misrepresenting or some agent on the company's behalf.
The premier's office said these issues were brought to Brightenview's attention and the company "has responded to the communication concerns identified and resolved to the satisfaction of the ministry."
The premier's office said SINP doesn't give preferential treatment to any particular company, Brightenview included. And it said anyone applying to immigrate to Canada has to meet stringent qualifications.