The trial of a Toronto businessman charged with fraud for allegedly pocketing millions in "Shariah-compliant" mortgages has been delayed until next fall — just as it was beginning.
The opening day of the trial for Omar Kalair, dubbed the "Muslim Madoff" by some of the homeowners who were allegedly left thousands in the hole after buying into the mortgages marketed to Muslims, got underway earlier this month.
The homeowners are referring to Bernie Madoff, the former investment adviser who is serving a 150-year sentence in the U.S. for running a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
The Crown made its opening statement on Nov. 7 in Ontario Superior Court in downtown Toronto after about two days of jury selection, with the trial expected to last several weeks.
But Crown counsel Damien Frost has told CBC Toronto the case has since been adjourned because Kalair fired his lawyer, with a new trial date set for Sept. 24, nearly a year away. A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General says the jury has also been discharged.
Crown 'strenuously objected' to adjournment
"The Prosecution/Crown opposed the adjournment of the trial which was found by Justice Dambrot to be the result of the accused Kalair firing his lawyer," Frost told CBC News, adding he remains "anxious and determined" to pursue the charges.
"There is clearly a public interest to ensure that justice is done for the many victims and the public," he said.
The ministry declined to answer whether delays of this length are normal or what impact they may have on the case.
Kalair's former counsel and that of his co-accused both declined comment on the case.
In his opening statement just weeks ago, Frost laid out an elaborate case before the jury, saying Kalair emptied the accounts of his mortgage company, UM Financial, days before it went into receivership and purchased nearly $2 million in gold bars with the last of its money, leading investigators on a "treasure hunt."
In addition to the gold bars, prosecutors said Kalair and co-accused Yusuf Panchbhaya, 59, also purchased hundreds of thousands in silver bullion. Panchbhaya was the chair of a board of religious advisers who issued fatwas sanctioning the businesses mortgages as Islamic.
But while Panchbhaya returned the silver to the court-appointed receiver, Grant Thornton, in 2011, the whereabouts of the gold bars remains a mystery to authorities to this day.
Case began in 2011 with homeowners left in lurch
Panchbhaya allegedly authorized the Shariah board's manager of finance to take possession of the precious metals to be paid to "unnamed clerics."
The case against the accused began in 2011, when some 180 homeowners were left in the lurch. That's when a superior court judge placed UM Financial into receivership after it emerged that mortgage payments that were supposed to be remitted to the Central 1 Credit Union were in arrears. the credit union had extended millions of dollars in loans to UM Financial since 2004.
In the years leading up to the scandal, UM Financial had built up an estimated $32-million portfolio of what were billed as Shariah-compliant mortgages. Some Muslim scholars hold that it is not permissible to charge or receive interest on loans, according to Islamic Shariah law.
At the time, the company boasted it was "Canada's premier Islamic Financial Institution," at one point working towards an application for a Canadian bank licence — and was profiled on the business pages of some of the country's major newspapers.
But while technically interest-free, UM Financial charged a fee to its clients for its religiously-sanctioned mortgages — at a sum higher than what borrowers would usually pay at market rates.
Fast-forward to 2014, three years after the fallout with Central 1 Credit Union, the RCMP would lay fraud charges against both Kalair and Panchbhaya for allegedly pocketing $4.3 million in mortgage payments, as well as the purchase and disappearance of 32 kilograms in gold bars.
If convicted, the pair could face a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.