CBC Investigates

Philanthropist Michael DeGroote paid Vito Rizzuto associate $500,000 amid casino dispute

Billionaire philanthropist Michael DeGroote paid a Vito Rizzuto associate $500,000 while engaged in a legal battle over a failed investment in a Caribbean casino venture, CBC News has learned.

Payment contradicts sworn testimony provided by DeGroote

Payment contradicts sworn testimony provided by DeGroote 18:44

Billionaire philanthropist Michael DeGroote paid a Vito Rizzuto associate $500,000 while engaged in a legal battle over a failed investment in a Caribbean casino venture, CBC News has learned.

New information obtained by CBC News contradicts evidence DeGroote swore under oath in which he denied any such payment was ever made when cross-examined about it in 2013.

DeGroote, who has the business and medical schools at Hamilton's McMaster University named after him, has been lionized as a self-made billionaire philanthropist.

On Aug. 1, 2013, the business tycoon had $500,000 wire transferred through an intermediary to a man named Sasha Vujacic – also known as Sasha Visser or simply as Sasha.

As part of ongoing legal proceedings involving a dispute over his investment in a Dominican Republic casino, DeGroote was cross-examined on Oct. 25, 2013. During that examination DeGroote was asked several times about paying Sasha or sending him money. DeGroote repeatedly and categorically denied it, stating that he has "not paid anything directly or indirectly for Mr. Visser."

CBC News, however, obtained an email sent by his longtime business associate Ivan Cairns where he writes that he transferred the $500,000 on behalf of DeGroote. "At the request of Mr. Michael DeGroote, we did, on Aug. 1, 2013, wire transfer $500,000 to an account at TD Canada Trust in the name of Brenda Kover," writes Cairns. Kover was Sasha's girlfriend at the time.

CBC News asked DeGroote several times about whether he perjured himself in his October 2013 testimony. He declined to answer the questions, but his lawyer sent a response stating "Michael DeGroote is 82 years old and very unwell."

The lawyer added that years of pain and drug treatment from a stroke DeGroote suffered in 2001 "do at times significantly interfere with Mr. DeGroote's cognitive abilities depending on the amount of emotional and physical stress that Mr. DeGroote is under at the time."

A nasty legal battle

Sasha had offered his services to help DeGroote in a nasty ongoing legal battle surrounding Dream Casinos.  DeGroote had invested over $100 million US in the operation and was suing his fellow investors, Antonio and Francesco Carbone, for alleged fraud.

The legal battle was protracted and bitter. A series of lawsuits and countersuits was filed in Ontario court between DeGroote and the Carbone brothers. While DeGroote was slowly making progress with his case in Toronto, business in the Dominican Republic was in tatters and he still had no answers to where his money was.

Desperate to get his money back, in May 2013 DeGroote held a meeting at his family luxury suite at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Toronto with two former Carbone associates who were offering their services to the billionaire.
Reacting to DeGroote's testimony regarding the payment to Sasha, Peter Shoniker said, "I don't know if he was deliberately untruthful or if he forgot, misunderstood, you know, I can't say. I can say that's definitely not correct." (CBC)

The first was Peter Shoniker. He had been providing consultancy work at Dream Casino's Toronto offices for most of the prior year, and came to believe the Carbones were swindling DeGroote.

Reacting to DeGroote's testimony regarding any payment to Sasha, Shoniker told CBC News on Aug. 28, "It's not correct. I can't say, I'm not inside Mike's head that day. I don't know if he was deliberately untruthful or if he forgot, misunderstood, you know, I can't say. I can say that's definitely not correct."

The second man, Sasha, introduced himself to DeGroote as Alexander Visser. Unbeknownst at this time to DeGroote, Sasha had multiple identities (and carried at least five passports) and a long criminal record, and had been out of jail less than a year.

He had served time for more than 40 criminal convictions in Canada for fraud, impersonation, assault and uttering death threats.

A stunning proposal

At the meeting, Sasha made a stunning proposal, according to secret audio recordings he made that have been filed in court by the Carbones. In exchange for $500,000 he offered his services as enforcer to the billionaire, "I need half a million to secure my family. I am going to go to war for you. You know what war means … I am going to go to DR where I am going to carry a gun with a licence and I am going to change everything in their world."

The three men reconvened the next day to discuss matters further and DeGroote offered Sasha $150,000 "for nothing" for possible future help.

In the weeks after the meeting, Sasha wanted to prove to DeGroote that he was the right man to employ in the battle against the Carbones. Sasha provided DeGroote with an audio recording he had secretly made of Francesco Carbone where they discussed where to "whack" DeGroote's friend and Dream Corp. president Andrew Pajak, who had sided with DeGroote in the legal battle. Sasha figured such a tape would be useful to DeGroote in the ongoing legal action.

Tape played for DeGroote

The tape was played for DeGroote at his Ritz-Carlton family suite on July 30, 2013.  By this time DeGroote knew Sasha was offering out his services as a hit man, knew of his multiple identities and his lengthy criminal record.

Yet two days later, DeGroote had Cairns, a board member of the DeGroote Gift Committee at McMaster University, wire transfer Sasha $500,000 to a joint account held by Sasha and Brenda Kover, his girlfriend at the time.

On Aug. 1, 2013 Sasha showed up in the Dominican Republic and soon began making death threats against the Carbones and one of their associates.
Vito Rizzuto, the most powerful mob boss in Canada before his death in December 2013, is seen on security camera footage from a Dream Casino location in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. CBC has been told the footage is from Aug. 14, 2013. (CBC)

On Aug. 14, 2013 he was caught on security tape touring a Dream Casino in Punta Cana with none other than legendary Montreal Mafia godfather Vito Rizzuto. Rizzuto, who until his death later that year was one of the most powerful mobsters in Canada, was being enlisted by the DeGroote side for their war against the Carbones.

CBC News asked DeGroote about the involvement of Vito Rizzuto.

DeGroote's lawyer responded that "Mr. DeGroote has never met Mr Rizzuto, has never spoken to him and has never had any association with him of any kind." He also said DeGroote has never been "complicit in members of organized crime becoming involved in any of his business affairs."

On May 15, 2015 Sasha was arrested in the Dominican Republic, reportedly in relation to the murder of a Dream Casino lawyer and fraud connected to Dream Corp.   Sasha is being held under preventative detention as he waits to hear the full evidence against him.

With files from Zach Dubinsky and Terence McKenna