British Columbia

'No right way to do wrong': Ponzi schemer Rashida Samji apologizes

A woman who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in B.C. history stood before a judge Tuesday to apologize for her actions. Rashida Samji faces between four and eight years for her crimes. She'll be sentenced on Wednesday.

Woman who ran $110-million fraud could face between 4 and 8 years in jail

Rashida Samji (right) leaves court last spring with her lawyer Richard Peck. (Jason Proctor)

A woman who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in B.C. history stood before a judge Tuesday to apologize for her actions.

Rashida Samji could face up to eight years in prison for masterminding a $110-million fraud that cheated more than 200 investors out of their savings.

Dressed in black and standing at a table directly before the bench, she read a brief statement, voice choking with emotion.

"Your honour, there is no right way to do wrong. This thought haunts me day and night," Samji said.

"The clocks cannot be turned back. It might sound futile, but I am truly sorry for the loss, pain and grief endured by the investors."

Suicide attempt in wake of discovery

Provincial court judge Gregory Rideout will sentence Samji Wednesday morning.

Crown is asking for a prison term of between seven and eight years; defence says a range of between four and five years would be more appropriate.

Rashida Samji was a prominent figure in Vancouver's South Asian community, with a penchant for jewellery and fashion.

Samji was found guilty of fraud on counts relating to 14 of the 284 named investors and companies who placed money in her Ponzi scheme. The judge stayed 14 separate counts of theft at the outset of the sentencing proceedings.

Investors were told they were providing money which would serve as collateral for a winery's plans to expand into South Africa and South America.

Samji, a former notary public, led them to believe the cash would remain in her trust account. The scheme was discovered in January 2012.

According to defence submissions, Samji attempted suicide days after the freezing of her accounts and the discovery of her Ponzi scheme. She had to be resuscitated after overdosing on sleeping pills.

Samji's lawyer, Richard Peck, painted an eloquent picture of his client as a woman caught between the weight of depression, a diagnosis of breast cancer and the demands of a debt borrowed at usurious rates.

He said the confluence of events was the only explanation he could find for her crimes.

"There has to be some spark that takes this otherwise ordinary citizen and gets her involved in a Ponzi scheme," he told the court.

"Any sane person knows that a Ponzi scheme does not last — cannot last."

'I have been lied to and cheated'

Peck took the judge through the course of Samji's life from her birth in Uganda in 1953, to her family's forced exile to Canada under threat from Idi Amin, to a failed marriage and the challenges of being a single mother in Vancouver.

Around the time the Ponzi scheme began, Samji had recently undergone a mastectomy. She has had 13 procedures related to breast reconstruction and the removal of other cancer nodules in the intervening years.

Rashida Samji apologized to the court saying "there is no right way to do wrong." (Jason Proctor/Twitter)

Peck said doctors recently detected another nodule in her lung.

"She's not a particularly healthy person, and she's going to require monitoring for the rest of her life," he said.

But Crown counsel Kevin Mark also read portions of impact statements written by victims into the record.

They include employees of the credit union which unwittingly funneled victims to Samji through one of its investment advisors, as well as family members and people who considered Samji a lifelong friend.

"I have been lied to and cheated," said one.

"My self esteem has gone. I see myself as a failure in judgment," said another.

Others spoke of the shame and embarrassment they felt at having been gullible. Victims said the stress has caused pain, depression and chronic illness. 

"How do I get back to trusting human beings?" one asked.

Harm versus suffering

The principles of sentencing require Rideout to consider the need for public deterrence and denunciation against the specifics of the offender.

Aggravating factors include the length of time the scheme went on, the size of the fraud both in dollars and number of investors, and the fact that Samji used her status as a notary public to breach the trust of investors.

But she has also shown remorse and spared the court the cost of a lengthy trial by admitting to her guilt. She has been stripped of her status as a notary and works as a clerk at a Fraser Valley hotel for $15 an hour.

Peck claimed the case wasn't driven by greed, and that Samji hadn't lived lavishly. But that point came with some contention.

Mark said "she wasn't living in poverty by any stretch of the imagination."

And the man appointed to oversee Samji's notary public practice said her receipts showed she spent thousands on a penchant for expensive jewellery, cruises and fashion.

In his comments to the lawyers, Rideout likened Samji's actions to an earthquake, rippling well beyond the initial investors to the communities around them. 

Peck said he didn't envy the judge the task of deciding a fit sentence for a woman whose actions had damaged not only others, but herself.

"It's not about one factor alone," he said. "It's not about balancing harm to one segment and the suffering of another."