Sask. government considered buying high-priced farmland near GTH from Regina developer — before he owned it
Newly revealed proposed government land deal echoes GTH scandal
Confidential emails reveal key players in the notorious "GTH land deal" were working on yet another deal just as the first controversial transaction was concluding in December 2013.
In this newly revealed email chain, the Saskatchewan government was discussing the possibility of buying high-priced farmland near the Global Transportation Hub from Regina developer Anthony Marquart, even though he didn't own the property at the time, according to the province's land titles system.
CBC has learned that Laurie Pushor, former GTH Minister Bill Boyd's right-hand man, knew at the time that Marquart didn't own the land, yet he still pursued the conversation.
These are the same men at the centre of the well-known "GTH land deal." In that transaction, Pushor negotiated an agreemeent that saw the government buy two parcels of land totalling 204 acres from Marquart for far more than the property was worth, according to the government's own appraisals.
Marquart made about $5 million on that deal.
Emails obtained by CBC through access to information requests show that on Dec. 3, 2013, just after the GTH board approved the purchase of the 204 acres from Marquart, Pushor wrote to the developer: "I believe you were going to make some suggestions to me around the additional property, so whenever you have that, it would be great."
Marquart replied: "I still need to get back to you on that 3rd quarter, but will probably do so upon a successful understanding/agreement with the existing opportunity," referring to the "GTH land deal."
On Dec. 24, 2013, the sale agreement for the 204 acres was signed, and Pushor once again raised the issue of the third parcel.
At that time, though, Marquart didn't own the land he and Pushor were discussing.
Marquart would go on to purchase the property on Jan. 9, 2014, then attempt to flip it to the government for an unknown "development" Pushor was considering for the area.
But that deal never happened, and the government claims it never intended to purchase the land, describing Pushor's interest in it as "exploratory."
'Mind-boggling' land deals
The actual owner of the land in question, Ian Haynes, told CBC he had no idea Marquart was planning to buy his land and flip it to the government.
Echoes of the GTH land scandal
This newly revealed proposed deal mimics the well-known GTH land scandal, in that it involves:
- High-profile Regina developer and Saskatchewan Party donor Anthony Marquart.
- Bill Boyd's right-hand man Laurie Pushor, who executed the first GTH land deal at Boyd's direction.
- Robert Tappauf, whose family rents land to Boyd and donated to his political campaign.
- Puzzling land deals at rapidly increasing — and high — prices.
- Secret transactions that don't show up on the land titles system.
Starting in early 2012, Haynes got caught up in a series of events related to his land he described as "mind-boggling."
In March 2012, a realtor representing Alberta businessman Robert Tappauf's company 139 Land Corporation approached Haynes and offered to buy his land. Tappauf's family has a business relationship with Boyd. The former minister responsible for the GTH rents thousands of acres of farm land from the Tappauf's.
"The Tappaufs just approached us out of the blue," said Haynes. "We weren't advertising land for sale."
He said the offers started fairly low, but after he declined, "they just kept going up with their price."
They ended up settling on $50,000 an acre which, for Haynes, was stunning.
Just a year and a half earlier, the Ministry of Highways had purchased some of his land for the Regina bypass from that same quarter section for $5,300 an acre.
The deal between Tappauf and Haynes was registered on March 21, 2012. This was a conditional sale that wouldn't close until a later, undetermined date.
On that same day, Tappauf signed similar conditional purchase agreements with the owners of the 204 acres of land involved in the "GTH land deal": the Sisters of Our Lady of the Mission and McNally Enterprises.
Those organizations received around the same price for their land. A spokesperson for the Sisters was similarly shocked by the price Tappauf paid.
Land flipped to Marquart
In February 2013, Marquart closed the purchase of the 204 acres from the Sisters and McNally in an eyebrow-raising way.
The Sisters and McNally thought they were selling their land to Tappauf, for $55,000 and $45,000 an acre respectively. But their transactions with Tappauf were never registered because he flipped the land the same day to Marquart for $84,000 and $72,000 an acre respectively.
The land titles record makes it look like the Sisters and McNally sold their land to Marquart for that higher price.
In a January 2016 interview with Tappauf, he explained this approach to purchasing the land, saying it's perfectly legal and financially beneficial.
"If I would have closed and then [sold] it again there would be extra legal fees," Tappauf said. "So it's a cost saving thing."
That was at least in part because Haynes wanted to subdivide his 95-acre property, keeping 10 acres for his farm site and selling the remainder to Tappauf.
According to the province's land titles registry, on Jan. 9, 2014, the sale went through.
Haynes thought he sold the property to Tappauf. However, just like with the Sisters and McNally, the registry has no record of that sale. Instead, it shows Haynes sold the land directly to Marquart.
"Wow," said Haynes when CBC brought this to his attention in early 2016. "That's weird."
The registry also says Haynes received $6.5 million for the land, but he said "that's not what I got." He said he received $4.2 million from Tappauf.
The $6.5 million is what Marquart paid Tappauf, the equivalent of about $76,000 an acre.
Haynes said Tappauf's realtor told him, after the sale, that the businessman wasn't planning to do anything with the land because he was going to resell it.
Marquart and Pushor discuss government's 'development' plans for Haynes land
The same day the sale of Haynes land went through, Jan. 9, 2014, Marquart emailed Pushor and sent some of the land titles paperwork for the new property.
He told Pushor that Haynes wanted to rent some of the land back from Marquart for grazing his livestock.
"I bring this to your attention as you may not want this to occur depending on timing of a possible closing between ourselves," Marquart wrote.
A few weeks later, Marquart asked Pushor in an email for feedback about whether he should go ahead with a leaseback arrangement with Haynes.
Pushor sent the request on to Boyd's chief of staff, who indicated he would raise the issue with the minister.
On March 25, 2014, Marquart raised the issue again. He explained to Pushor that Haynes wanted "a May 1, 2014 to April 30, 2015 term for farm/animal grazing. Is this acceptable on your end or will there be construction occurring before this end date?"
Pushor replied: "I don't have any issue with this especially as it relates to the south property which has not been purchased by us yet. We would want some form of cancellation option within the agreement so if we needed to begin development quickly we could."
On multiple occasions, CBC News asked Pushor, Marquart and the Premier's Office what those development plans were. The question was never addressed.
When presented with this information, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Economy, where Pushor now works as the deputy minister, wrote the following: "Mr. Pushor was not actively considering purchasing the south parcel, conversations were exploratory and the mandate provided to Mr. Pushor did not include the south parcel. As such, though high level preliminary discussion did take place, there was not an intention to purchase this land."
Marquart called this a 'normal business transaction'
CBC News asked Marquart for a comment on this story.
He declined by email saying, "my comments won't assist the tone and direction of your reporting."
"It's adjacent to the GTH, so as the GTH gets developed, the lands around the GTH will become more valuable, and there will be development opportunities on those lands as well," Marquart said.
"It made complete sense to have lands around that area and just take a wait and see approach."
Marquart said this was "a normal business transaction" and he was "surprised nobody else saw the opportunity."
"When looking at the deal as a whole I viewed this as an opportunity that was worth taking," he said.
It made complete sense to have lands around that area and just take a wait and see approach.- Anthony Marquart , Regina developer
Marquart also said he didn't get the land appraised before he purchased it from Tappauf for $76,000 an acre.
Earlier this month, CBC News asked Marquart why, in December 2013, he was discussing selling land to the government that he didn't yet own. Marquart didn't address that question.
However, a government spokesperson offered this explanation: "Mr. Marquart was providing information on this land in the event that the government did choose to consider purchasing, which it did not. Mr. Marquart was in a position to discuss at that point in time because he was nearing the close of a sale for that land which had been in process for around a year."
Government tried to buy Haynes land from Tappauf in 2012
The province, though, is declining to address the fact that in November 2012, Boyd recommended to cabinet that the government purchase Haynes's land.
According to the provincial auditor's report, Boyd brought a package deal to cabinet at that time: three parcels of land for $22.8 million, which is the equivalent of $78,000 an acre.
The package included the land owned by the Sisters, McNally and Haynes. All of it was under contract to Robert Tappauf's company, 139 Land Corporation.
On the floor of cabinet, then-Justice Minister Gord Wyant asked who owned 139 Land Corporation, as the cabinet decision item didn't indicate that fact.
Apparently no one knew who owned the company. So, Wyant asked that some research be done.
In the end, 139 Land Corporation declined to disclose that the company was owned by Tappauf and the deal died.
Tappauf's family has a business connection to Boyd. It rents thousands of acres of land to Boyd's farming operation. In addition, the Tappaufs have donated to Boyd's political campaign.
The government won't say why Boyd wanted the GTH to purchase the land.
After we first reported on the GTH land deal in February 2016, Boyd sued CBC, saying there was no wrongdoing involved in the transactions and CBC's reporting was false.