The family that bought a major downtown Vancouver landmark and owns federal office buildings in five cities also has connections to Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian offshore accounts specialist at the centre of the biggest corporate documents leak in history.
West Vancouver-based Larco Investments bought the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver for $180 million from Ivanhoe Cambridge in 2015. The company also owns Park Royal Shopping Centre, Burnaby’s Bridge Studios, Morgan Crossing in Surrey and the Maple Leaf Self Storage chain. It gained national attention in 2007 for a $1.7 billion deal with the Conservative government to become the landlord of Canada Revenue Agency, the RCMP and other departments.
The closely held private company, run by brothers Amin, Mansoor and Shiraz Lalji, was estimated to be worth $2.87 billion by Canadian Business, but the union representing workers at four Larco-owned hotels published a website last year that questions why it has offshore holdings. UNITE HERE recently updated that website with discoveries from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ Panama Papers database.
UNITE HERE representative Michelle Travis said she faxed Amin and Mansoor Lalji a letter last September 1 that sought clarity about the structure of their ownership in the J.W. Marriott Las Vegas Resort and Rampart Casino, among other holdings. She said UNITE HERE never received a response.
“While we understand it is legal to move assets offshore for tax reasons, we do have concerns about the ability of employers to shop tax jurisdictions,” Travis wrote. “We think this creates an unfair advantage for certain employers and is unfair to the average Canadian taxpayer.”
The Panama Papers database shows a British Virgin Islands-registered company called Oakdene Finance Ltd., which is also named in a 2014 annual report as the ultimate parent undertaking of Access Self Storage. Access, the third largest storage chain in the United Kingdom, includes Shiraz Lalji as a director. From 2004 to 2007, Oakdene was a shareholder in the Alamut Foundation, which shares the same Jersey address as Royal Bank of Canada Trust Company (Jersey) Ltd. Alamut is ultimately based in Liechtenstein.
When Business in Vancouver called Larco to seek an interview with Amin Lalji, his assistant referred the request to executive vice-president Thad Alston. But Alston did not respond to repeated phone and email messages.
Alston, however, offered some insight into the Laljis’ offshore investment structure when he appeared at a December 3, 2003, hearing before the Nevada Gaming Commission.
Alston explained that Larco made offshore investments for legal, tax and estate planning reasons. He mentioned a 2005 deadline to dispose assets of a family trust and pay tax in Canada, “with the idea that you’d end up with a sum of funds offshore in a tax-free jurisdiction with the idea that with the funds under the control of essentially a bank, trust company, you would then have a way to manage those assets, those funds for the benefit of the families generations to come.
“To give you some idea of the magnitude of the funds that are involved, we thought that we’d probably end up with somewhere between $300 million and $500 million Canadian dollars after paying all the tax on these assets,” he said, according to a transcript.
Alston explained to the commission how three or four years earlier, he went with Shiraz Lalji to Liechtenstein and interviewed lawyers and banks before settling on HSBC and establishing a foundation called Hilfreich Stiftung. Hilfreich Stiftung was the parent company of the Las Vegas hotel and casino property.
Alston told the commission that he was the sole director of subsidiaries Hotspur Resorts and Hotspur Casinos.
Back to Canada, where Larco’s biggest tenant in federal buildings in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal is the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). The tax agency’s spokesman, Jelica Zdero said the Income Tax Act prevents it from commenting on specific taxpayers.
“The CRA does not deal directly with the landlords of the offices where CRA is an occupant,” Zdero said, referring BIV to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC).
PSPC initially tried to refer BIV to “law enforcement,” but a spokesman said: “We have an integrity regime and it ensures accountability and integrity in all transactions.”
However, a 2014 CBC report indicated the agency has had a rocky relationship with Larco since the sale-leaseback deal happened, including a clash of cultures, payment disputes and even a lawsuit that was settled out-of-court.
Zdero did say that CRA had begun 45 audits related to Mossack Fonseca and now has “tens of thousands of records from multiple sources.”
“The agency will use this and any other data collected from its various sources to ensure that all Canadian taxpayers identified from the Panama Papers are pursued,” she said. “The CRA is committed to combating the abusive use of offshore jurisdictions and protecting the integrity of the Canadian tax system.”
Zdero said RBC had been co-operative and would not be opposing a court application for information about RBC clients linked to Mossack Fonseca.
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