$200K savings lost after immigration lawyer terminated, says man who hoped to immigrate from China

A man who hoped to immigrate to Canada from China says his family has lost their life savings after transferring $200,000 to Winnipeg immigration lawyer Paul Hesse, in the hope it would improve their chances of gaining permanent residency in Canada.

Man says he transferred $200,000 to Winnipeg lawyer Paul Hesse as a business investment

The Law Society found Paul Hesse guilty of 29 counts of professional misconduct in 2020.
Paul Hesse was removed as partner at the Winnipeg firm Pitblado Law in June 2019 after allegations of soliciting business from immigration clients. (CBC)

A man who hoped to immigrate to Canada from China says his family has lost their life savings after transferring $200,000 to Winnipeg immigration lawyer Paul Hesse, in the hope it would improve their chances of gaining permanent residency in Canada.

The man and his family — including his wife, a newborn baby and a seven-year-old daughter — are all living in Winnipeg on visitor visas.

CBC News has agreed not to name the man who we are calling Mark, as he is afraid that speaking out could impact his future immigration applications.

Now, with the news Hesse was suddenly dismissed last month from his Winnipeg firm, Pitblado Law, Mark and his family join a growing list of would-be immigrants whose money and immigration status are in limbo.

"There's some anxiousness — there are people who don't know where things are at and that's the biggest concern," said Reis Pagtakhan, a Winnipeg-based lawyer who has taken over several of Hesse's files.

"I think that once we get into a situation where everyone understands what their situation is … the whole process will be a lot easier."

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Pitblado dismissed Hesse on June 7 after allegations surfaced that he was funnelling funds into businesses involving his then romantic partner, Patrick Maxwell.

Officials with the law firm believe more than 20 former clients are affected. 

None of the allegations have been proven in court. CBC News has made multiple attempts, without success, to reach Hesse and Maxwell for comment. 

The Winnipeg Free Press reported last week that Hesse claimed there were "'multiple inaccuracies' in the description given of the situation," but could not comment any further due to prior commitments. 

Told to invest $200K

Mark, who spoke to CBC through a Mandarin translator, says he first began working with Hesse three years ago, after being introduced to the lawyer through a friend. The friend, who was working on his immigration application with Hesse at the time, has since been accepted into the provincial nominee program.

Mark said he felt that Hesse's guidance in helping his friend showed that he could trust Hesse as a lawyer.

"They got to know each other very well," Mark said. "In China, we do things through friends' help."

A Chinese immigrant says he lost his life savings after Winnipeg immigration lawyer Paul Hesse was terminated from Pitblado Law. It's alleged he solicited investments from clients for businesses involving his former romantic partner. (CBC)

Hesse told Mark that the best way to come to Canada would be to establish a company, with an original investment of $200,000 needed for the company, which Hesse also represented. Hesse did not indicate to Mark that he represented the company.

CBC News has seen documents which show at least $100,000 was transferred to the accounts of Pitblado, and another $100,000 transferred directly to Hesse.

Mark said he was told that if he put up the money, it would be returned in full two years later — much like a security deposit — when he got his work permit.

However, Hesse met with Mark a couple of weeks ago — after Hesse had been dismissed from Pitblado — to tell him their immigration plan "wouldn't work."

"[I am] very sorry, now I can't refund you all your money," Mark says he was told by Hesse.

However, Hesse never admitted to doing anything wrong, instead insisting they needed a new plan, Mark said. 

"It's only now that I know I was completely swindled."

The last he heard from Hesse was two weeks ago, when the lawyer came to his house to tell him the money was gone. During the conversation, Mark claims that Hesse told him if he wanted to get his money back, he should sue Hesse and the firm, Pitblado Law.

"Although he asked me to sue him ... I'll only take this step as the last [resort]," said Mark. "I want to first seek help from the law society, to ask them for direction."

Mark says over the course of two years, he communicated mainly with Hesse's assistant via WeChat, a messaging app that's popular in Asia. 

The assistant is still working for Pitblado Law for a different lawyer, CBC News has learned.

Benjamin Hecht, a managing partner at Pitblado Law, said any help provided to Hesse was administrative and that he acted alone. (Submitted by Pitblado Law )

Benjamin Hecht, a managing partner at Pitblado Law, describes the assistant's role as solely administrative support.

"[Hesse's] professional misconduct was conducted alone, without the knowledge of anybody at Pitblado," he said in a statement.

"Mr. Hesse abused his position and the trust of his clients. Upon learning this, we immediately removed him from the firm and seized his laptop."

Law society investigating

An investigation into Hesse has formally been launched by the Law Society of Manitoba, the regulatory body for all practising lawyers in Manitoba.

Meanwhile, officials with Manitoba's provincial nominee program say they are undertaking "thorough investigations as appropriate" in response to the allegations. This includes a review of all files relevant to the issue. 

The Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program "is co-operating directly with relevant enforcement bodies, including regulatory associations, within the bounds of established legal constraints," a government spokesperson said in a prepared statement.

Winnipeg immigration lawyer Reis Pagtakhan works for MLT Aikins, which has taken on some of Hesse's former clients. (John Einarson/CBC)

Pagtakhan, who works with the Winnipeg law firm MLT Aikins, says some of Hesse's former clients have been forwarded to his office from Pitblado.

His firm is slowly piecing together all the files related to the case.

He says it's not uncommon for lawyers to own businesses which they may want to sell, in full or in part — but they need to be clear about their interests, and avoid any work that may create a conflict of interest.

"Normally what happens is you disclose, 'This is the business that I have, this is the business that I own, I would not recommend that you hire me as your lawyer, [but] that you hire your own lawyer,'" he said.

"The potential conflict [needs to] be disclosed and a recommendation be made to the client to seek independent legal counsel," said Pagtakhan.

Mark says he is unsure of his next steps, and doesn't know if he has enough money for a lawyer. He says he will likely go to the law society for more guidance.