Kwantlen Student Association settles RAF lawsuit

Third Takhar relative connected to KSA discovered; students react to the news.

By Matt DiMera
[news editor]

After more than three long years in court, the fight is over.

The Kwantlen Student Association (KSA) council voted by secret ballot to settle their lawsuit against former elected directors and staff in a closed-door session at an emergency council meeting Oct. 14.

“After serious consideration and consulting with legal expertise, the Kwantlen Student Association has agreed to settle the lawsuit with a mutual release and no costs to either party. We have reached a settlement with all parties named in the lawsuit,” wrote KSA president and Surrey campus director Harman “Sean Birdman” Bassi in a statement posted to the student association’s website.

“Many of our members have voiced their concern that today’s students are paying for decisions made by the student association that commenced the action. We’ve heard your concerns, and have decided to dismiss the case.”

Bassi refused to comment when contacted by The Runner, Oct. 21.

The KSA originally filed their civil lawsuit in the B.C. Supreme Court in July 2008 against five former members of the Reduce All Fees (RAF) party, including the onetime director of finance, executive adviser and de-facto group leader Aaron Takhar.

Takhar and his RAF party took control of the KSA in 2005 and held power until they were ousted in a court-ordered election in October 2006.

The KSA’s lawsuit alleged that Aaron Takhar and members of his RAF slate misused more than $2 million in student fees to commit mismanagement and breach of fiduciary duty.

Jaivin Khatri, Yasser Ahmad, Danish Butt, Jatinder “Joey” Atwal and AST Ventures were also named as defendants in the 2008 suit.

A consent order was filed Monday, Oct. 17 in the B.C. Supreme Court, setting aside all of the default judgments against the defendants and ordering that the case be dismissed without costs to either party.

Former KSA director of operations Justine Franson (far left) and her first cousin KSA director of finance Nina Sandhu (far right) at the April 14 KSA council meeting. (Matt DiMera/The Runner)

Bassi is just one of several current council members who seem intent on making this settlement the closing chapter in a long legal case against former directors and staff from the Reduce All Fees (RAF) party, the final fight in a war that began as early as 2004.

“This lawsuit has been a five-year process with absolutely no finish line in sight,” wrote Bassi in his statement. “Kwantlen students have already funded the battle to the tune of $800,000 in legal fees and staff time, and there was a very low probability that our council would be victorious in the case to recoup the monies that went into it.”

Nina Sandhu, the current KSA’s director of finance says that there isn’t a lot she can say publicly about the now-settled suit.

“There is a confidentiality clause in place,” Sandhu told The Runner in an interview in the KSA executive board office Oct. 12. “I think we’re happy it’s settled before the courts and now we can focus on other things.”

 

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Not everyone agrees that the settlement is a good thing.

Former KSA official Laura Anderson was shocked when she first learned about the KSA’s decision to settle the case.

“My initial reaction was somewhere between just absolute horror and disbelief,” said Anderson.

Anderson was one of the original group of students who challenged the RAF party between 2005 and 2006, taking them to the B.C. Supreme Court and eventually ousting them in a court-ordered election in the fall of 2006. She was also instrumental in mounting the civil suit that has now been settled.

“I can’t see a reason why you would do this,” said Anderson in an Oct. 21 interview. “The student society suffered a massive financial loss as a result of the action of the individuals who were named in the suit and to just kind of toss that asunder as if it were somehow a mistake or not important is absolutely ridiculous.”

“These people should have been held to account for their actions.”

Media reports at the time compared Anderson to a modern-day Cassandra for her repeated and unheeded warnings at the time that something bad was going on at the KSA.

“I was like the crazy person who stands at the corner, yelling that horrible things are going on while people walk by discounting me as being crazy,” she told the Vancouver Sun in 2007.

However, the results of a $100,000 PricewaterhouseCoopers forensic audit commissioned by the KSA after RAF left office, backed up Anderson’s warnings.

The audit, dated July 27, 2007, documented $144,579 in unsupported payments to employees, elected officials and businesses between January and November of 2006, including Takhar, Yasser Ahmad, Danish Butt, Jaivin Khatri and Jatinder Atwal.

Auditor Mary Ann Hamilton found more than $10,000 in cell phone bills and over $20,000 paid for an “After Party.” She was unable to locate any receipts or minutes showing approval for this event.

According to the audit, the KSA cashed in over $620,000 in CIBC investments and then made loans that in some cases PWC considered high-risk and prohibited by the KSA’s own internal regulations. [*Please note updated information].

She also found a $1,776 payment to Dolo Investigations for “surveillance work.”

Hamilton expressed further concerns about the accuracy and legitimacy of payroll payments made by the KSA, writing that “given the lack of payroll records, employee files and other records to support these payments I could not verify whether certain individuals, paid by the KSA, actually performed duties for the KSA.”

One year after the audit was completed, the KSA filed the suit against Takhar and the other defendants.

 

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Anderson is not the only one unhappy with the current board’s decision to dismiss the RAF case.

Student Derek Robertson says he too doesn’t understand the logic behind the settlement. He also questions how Bassi calculated the cost of the RAF suit to be $800,000. According to Robertson, the KSA’s entire legal budget over the last four years is close to that number, but that includes multiple other legal cases and spending not related to the RAF case.

Robertson is a veteran of Kwantlen student politics, having been elected to several different positions for multiple terms, including stints as the KSA director of external affairs, and as a student representative on both the Kwantlen board of governors and the Kwantlen senate.

“My reaction to hearing of the settlement was utter disgust; absolute, utter disgust,” said Robertson. “The fact is that a lawsuit that was started after a forensic audit that implicated these parties in allegedly mismanaging money from the students at Kwantlen, and this board of directors then sees fit to dismiss a case where we have default judgments.”

Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s director of marketing and communications, Joanne Saunders, has been fielding questions about the university’s connection to the KSA since the summer, explaining that the student association is a separate society and acts independently from the school.

“In regards to the settlement the university can only say that this was something between the student association only,” Saunders told The Runner. “We were unable to get involved in any form at all.”

“The only other comment that I would make is that it is public knowledge that there was a default judgment against Mr. Takhar so that may come across as a little bit puzzling to people reading that the lawsuit is settled.”

Vancouver lawyer Jeremy Rusinek was not involved with the RAF case and says that only the plaintiffs are aware of the reasons behind their decision to settle, but he offered some possible explanations as to why a plaintiff might choose to settle a case where default judgments had already been won.

“If the defendants have a good reason for why they were unable to respond, or why they were unable to get a lawyer, then it’s possible to get a default judgment overturned, and at that point you’re looking at diving headlong back into the case,” said Rusinek. “Just because the default judgment is there, it’s not the same as getting a judgment at the end of a trial.”

He also suggested that the finances of the defendants could have also come into play.

“Even if the default judgment stood up to scrutiny and they weren’t able to overturn it, if the defendants don’t have any assets you can go after, then like the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone.”

Robertson says that according to estimates given by KSA legal counsel in the past, the case was approximately between 90 and 95 per cent completed.

“This was not a matter of ‘oh well we’re not sure if we would have won or not,’” said Robertson. This was a matter of having default judgments against every last one of these people and getting money back on behalf of Kwantlen students.”

Current Kwantlen senate representative and non-voting council member Christopher Girodat agrees.

These were some of the darkest years in the history of the Kwantlen Student Association, during the RAF years in office,” says Girodat. “For us to dismiss a case that we had already won against those former directors, it essentially gives anyone the clear to say ‘you know what if we’re going to mismanage the KSA, we’ve now set a precedent that we’re not going to come after you or that we’re not going to take it seriously.’ And I think that students deserve better than that.”

“This is students’ money that’s been misused. Unsupported payments that were made out of student fees and we’re now not going to collect that money. Students should be very, very concerned.”

Girodat believes that Kwantlen students have good reasons to distrust the current KSA board given the news that was broken earlier this summer.

 

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Nearly five years after the original RAF scandal made headlines across the country, the Kwantlen Student Association found itself back in the news this July when The Runner uncovered direct family ties between current board members and defendants in the RAF civil suit.

The Runner’s investigations revealed that Justine Franson, the KSA’s then-director of operations, was previously-known as Justine Takhar, Aaron’s sister. Franson is her married name.

Nina Sandhu, the KSA’s current director of finance, was revealed to be Aaron’s cousin. Sandhu’s and Takhar’s mothers are sisters.

At the time the family connections were made public, the RAF lawsuit had recently been put on an indefinite hold after the current executive board took office April 1, 2011. On the first day of their term, the executive board of directors (EBOD), including Franson and Sandhu, fired long-time KSA lawyer David Borins and his firm Heenan Blaikie. They directed Borins to “cease all activity pertaining to the RAF case until further notice.” They also instructed him “not to schedule a date for the case management conference until further notice.” Surrey campus director Harman “Sean Birdman” Bassi was also present during the April 1 in-camera session.

At that meeting, the executive designated Franson to “be the sole liaison with KSA legal counsel and represent the views of EBOD [executive board of directors] to legal counsel and report back on any issues.” They also decided that if any council members had legal concerns they were to direct them to Franson.

In an interview with The Runner, the director of operations and then-chairperson Franson maintained that the change in legal representation was due to a conflict of interest with Borins and former general manager Desmond Rodenbour, because the two had attended the same high school and university.  At the time, Franson made no mention of any possible personal conflict of interest of her own.

In the same interview, Franson suggested that there had been “a lot of frivolous spending” on legal matters by previous boards and staff, as well as a “lack of transparency.”

 

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Franson never publicly addressed the news that she was Takhar’s sister, but resigned a few weeks later. Sandhu remains the KSA’s director of finance.

Former council member and current student Matt Todd was only able to receive direct confirmation from the KSA of the Takhar connection after sending a legal letter through his lawyer.

In his written response, dated Sept. 14, KSA lawyer Sean K. Boyle confirmed the familial connections and advised that “the conflict was communicated to KSA’s Council at the first Council meeting following the issue being raised.” Boyle concluded his letter by advising that “for future reference, the minutes of Council are publically [sic] available to all members.”

None of the KSA minutes reviewed by The Runner show that Franson or Sandhu ever explicitly declared to council that they were in a conflict because they were related to Takhar.

Questions about who on council knew about Franson and Sandhu’s close familial connection to Aaron Takhar and when they knew, remain unanswered. Sandhu has refused to comment publicly about her relationship to Takhar, saying only that she doesn’t talk about her personal life. The KSA president and the remaining members of the executive board declined or did not respond to requests for interviews before deadline.

In an Aug. 8 written statement, Bassi wrote the following: “The Director of Operations and the Director of Finance, respectively, understand the appearance of a possible conflict. Both have, and will continue to abstain from any decisions pertaining to the civil actions against former directors.”

According to Sandhu, she has never had any involvement with the RAF case.

“I’ve always never been a part of it anyways,” she said in an Oct. 21 interview. “There was nothing done for the RAF case so I wasn’t removing myself in August. It was just openly declared of removing myself, but since then I’ve never been involved in the process whatsoever.”

At an Aug. 17 meeting the KSA council took steps to deal with the “appearance of a possible conflict” by passing a motion. The motion upheld the earlier April 1 decision of the executive board to fire lawyer David Borins and “to cease all activity pertaining to the RAF case until further notice.” It was a near-exact copy of the original motion initially moved by Nina Sandhu that stopped action on the case in April. The main difference being that the new motion specifically noted that Franson and Sandhu “have had no involvement in this decision making process.” This time however, Franson and Sandhu left the room before the vote.

Anderson said the revelation of Sandhu and Franson’s connection to Takhar showed “a massive conflict of interest.”

“I’m not at all impressed with the fact that Nina and Sean and the new group of RAF here have decided to try and rewrite history by passing a motion that retroactively Nina and Justine weren’t going to have anything to do with the case, when clearly they did for months before it was discovered that Justine was Aaron Takhar’s sister and that Nina was his cousin,” said Anderson.

Senator Girodat is equally adamant that the family connection is still an issue.

“It was a story broken by the media and when students started to ask questions and express outrage all of a sudden it was time to declare a conflict of interest on decisions that had already been made,” said Girodat.

“Their conflict of interest didn’t suddenly arise when they voted on a motion . . . that conflict of interest has existed since their term started, they should have abstained on April 1, argued Girodat. “[Nina] and Justine had no place being involved in any of those decisions from April 1, not just when students found out about it.”

 

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Runner investigations have now uncovered that a third member of the extended Takhar family also ran in the last KSA election, albeit unsuccessfully.

Harman Mann, who ran for Langley campus director but lost in February 2011, is Aaron Takhar’s brother-in-law. Mann’s sister Raman is married to Aaron. Raman Mann was herself once an elected official in the KSA, serving as a Surrey campus representative between 2005 and 2006 under the RAF party.

Harman Mann declined to speak to The Runner when reached by telephone at his home Friday, Oct. 21.

 

Aaron Takhar’s brother-in-law Harman Mann outside the Aug. 3 council meeting shortly after Franson and Sandhu’s relationship to Takhar was revealed. (Matt DiMera/The Runner)

According to Runner investigations, current-KSA president Harman “Sean Birdman” Bassi was also a guest at Aaron Takhar’s wedding to Raman Mann. Photos obtained by The Runner show that Sandhu also attended the wedding.

Harman Mann was first elected as a Surrey campus representative and served as a voting member of council between October 2008 and March 2011. Both Raman and Harman listed the same Surrey address as their place of residence in KSA society records filed with the B.C. Corporate Registry.

When The Runner asked Nina Sandhu in a Oct. 21 interview about Harman Mann and his connection to Aaron Takhar, she denied any knowledge of it.

“I am not aware of any relation that he may have to Aaron Takhar . . . I don’t speak about our personal relations and that’s not something I can comment on. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on something to do with Harman because it’s not my place,” said Sandhu. “Harman, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t really involved in the student association much anymore.”

The KSA’s council meeting minutes, however, tell a different story. Since leaving office in March 2011, Mann has remained involved in council decisions, holding proxy votes at multiple meetings this term. Mann held a proxy vote at the April 6, May 11, Aug. 3, Aug. 17, Aug. 24, and Aug. 31 meetings of council.

At the Aug. 17 in-camera council meeting, when Franson and Sandhu left the room because of their conflicts of interest, the KSA’s minutes show that Mann remained in the room and voted on the RAF-case-related motion.

Mann again held a proxy vote at the Aug. 31 meeting of council where he voted on a motion giving the executive board authority to “determine fully the outcome of the lawsuit against former directors, including but not limited to any form of settlement.” According to the minutes of that meeting, Mann did not abstain from the vote nor declare any conflict of interest.

Nowhere in the KSA minutes is it recorded that Bassi, Franson, or Sandhu ever pointed out Harman Mann’s familial connection to the Takhar family, even when he was voting on motions directly linked to the RAF case.

 

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Upon learning of Mann’s connection to the Takhar family, Robertson is outraged.

“It leads me to wonder if there’s anymore that are related to Aaron Takhar who have not declared the conflict,” said Robertson. “Because up until this point, relatives of Aaron Takhar have not declared their conflict of interest until being informed of their conflict of interest by The Runner. It’s a very concerning thing to see, based on the fact that all three of these relatives of Aaron Takhar’s have been directors of the KSA.”

Girodat is equally stunned.

“Harman Mann had run for Langley campus director unsuccessfully in the last KSA election,” said Girodat. “He would have been a director had he won. There would have been three relatives playing leading roles on this council.”

“For [Franson and Sandhu] to remove themselves from consideration of RAF case issues, but knowingly leave behind Aaron’s brother-in-law, a family insider in those discussions is absolutely outrageous,” said Girodat. “To remove yourself, declaring a conflict of interest, knowing that you still have someone left behind who shares that conflict, it makes no sense, that information should not have been withheld from the board of directors.

 

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Derek Robertson says that the B.C. Society Act is very clear about potential conflicts.

“When it comes to conflicts of interest, you must remove yourself from any aspect of the conflict so that involves being present for discussions, giving any guidance to legal counsel, giving advice to other elected officials in the matter, voting on the matter,” said Robertson. “It is your duty, if you are in a conflict of interest to remove yourself from that conflict.”

KSA minutes from a closed-door in-camera March 31 council meeting place Aaron Takhar’s sister Justine Franson, cousin Balninna Sandhu and brother-in-law Harman Mann in the meeting where the RAF lawsuit was discussed.

The record of that meeting shows that neither Franson, Sandhu nor Mann publicly disclosed their relationship with Aaron Takhar, a defendant in the case being discussed. According to those minutes, both Franson and Sandhu actively participated in the discussion of the case.

Minutes from a June 17 in-camera meeting of council mention that the executive board, on which both Franson and Sandhu sat, had been reviewing RAF documents.

No mention of a conflict of interest was disclosed to council in either meeting, either from Mann, Sandhu or Franson.

 

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Though council didn’t vote on the case until Oct. 14, the settlement deal was made weeks earlier, according to Franson’s replacement, the KSA’s newly-appointed interim director of operations, Nipun Pandey. Pandey told The Runner that the decision to settle was made before he was appointed on Sept. 28.

Bassi’s statement announcing the settlement is dated Sept. 30, though it wasn’t publicly posted until after the Oct. 14 council meeting where council made its decision to settle.

 

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Seven days after the KSA council voted to settle the RAF case, an old KSA official stopped by to sit in an executive board meeting held on the Surrey campus of Kwantlen.

Danish Butt, a former KSA president and one-time staff member, and one of the defendants in the now-dismissed RAF case, joined the meeting in progress, sitting quietly to the side. After the meeting, Butt told The Runner he was a student at Kwantlen.

One-time KSA president and former RAF-lawsuit defendant Danish Butt speaks to Runner reporters after a KSA executive meeting Oct. 21. (Matt DiMera/The Runner)

He was later seen meeting Bassi, Sandhu and other members of the KSA executive in their private executive office.

When asked about the former RAF member’s presence, Sandhu said that he had made an appointment to meet with Bassi, but that she didn’t know what they were talking about.

“He came in here just to introduce himself and to say that ‘I would like to engage in some talks with the student association.’ I think he knows the student association and might be willing to offer some advice to us,” said Sandhu.

“I think it’s always an interesting perspective: people who’ve gone through the council before,” she said. “Whether it was in a negative light, a positive light; they’ve obviously gone through stuff and a lot of people for example have compared us to them and so I think it would be interesting to see you know if they can offer help or advice or share from their experience. I think it’s a great idea.”

*UPDATE: One of the parties with whom the KSA entered a loan transaction, Westlund Properties Corp. repaid the loan after the 2007 PricewaterhouseCoopers report was issued and initial news stories appeared, and in 2012 has obtained a retrospective appraisal, unavailable to PWC at the time of its review, indicating that at the time of the loan, the land securing the loan was worth $2,440,000, such that the loan to Westlund Properties Corp. was fully secured.

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