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Federal Politics

Condos, Canola, Harper, Trudeau: Questions Swirl Around ‘China-focused’ Investor

Thomas Liu collected headlines and photos with politicians by touting huge housing and oil deals — but results are hard to find.

By Jeremy Nuttall 2 Mar 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

He’s shared dumplings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a private fundraiser and attended a trade mission with former prime minister Stephen Harper. Toronto developer Thomas Liu portrays himself as connected and accomplished — his company’s website posts photos of him with powerful politicians and boasts of awards and business success.

But a Tyee investigation has found Liu’s company, LeMine Investment Group, has a record with troubled projects and public announcements that don’t pan out. Liu also has apparent ties to the Chinese government, causing one security expert to question Canadian vetting procedures to determine who can get close to the country’s decision makers.

Liu did not respond to phone and email requests for an interview. The Tyee sought comment from Liu on a number of issues surfaced in this investigation, including:

Canola connections?

The Tyee first reported on Liu in 2016 during a series of stories around Trudeau’s private fundraisers held in private homes with wealthy Chinese business people, one attended by Liu.

Liu’s presence was a concern for the opposition Conservatives because of a high profile moment two years earlier, when Liu attended the 2014 APEC summit with former prime minister Stephen Harper. There, Liu signed a $1 billion deal for LeMine to export Canadian canola oil to China.

Photos of Liu with Harper and former Conservative cabinet ministers James Moore and Gerry Ritz were still posted on LeMine’s website this week.

In 2014, the Conservative government boasted: “Ontario-based LeMine Investment Group signed a seven year, $1 billion, canola oil export agreement, along with a canola crude-oil trade promotion agreement with Guizhou Fengguan Group.” A Reuters story at the time noted LeMine inked the deal “even though the Canadian company has not yet secured supplies.” LeMine claimed the Canadian oil would be sold under the Fengguan brand in Chinese outlets owned by Wal-Mart. But Reuters could not verify Wal-Mart’s relationship with Fengguan.

The Tyee has for five weeks repeatedly requested that Wal-Mart’s U.S. headquarters confirm LeMine has sold canola oil to its operations in China. Wal-Mart spokesperson Marilee McInnis said the company was looking into it, but Wal-Mart never provided an answer. Further Tyee attempts to verify whether LeMine has exported oil, including inquiries of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, were unsuccessful. Canola Council of Canada, the nation’s foremost canola industry group, said LeMine is not a member and would not comment on the deal.

Liu told Reuters in 2014 his company was planning its own canola crushing plant to be located in Saskatchewan. SaskCanola, Saskatchewan’s canola producer association, told The Tyee it knows of no canola crusher in the province run fully or in part by LeMine.

Thomas Liu shakes hands with then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the 2014 Canadian trade mission to China. The photo is displayed on the web site of Liu’s Lemine Investment Group, its caption boasting: ‘LeMine Investment Group and Bombardier shared the first place with a $1 billion contract with China.’

Liu’s canola business efforts caused concern when he popped up at the 2016 Trudeau fundraiser, because at the time Canada and China were working out a trade dispute on canola seeds, and some worried Liu’s proximity to the prime minister may have created the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Trudeau was questioned by then ethics commissioner Mary Dawson over the Tyee’s report on the dinner. Dawson never sanctioned Trudeau for the events and it is not known if she spoke to Liu about the dinner he attended.

Condos stopped, stalled

On the LeMine website, photos show Liu smiling in an office with the mayor and government staffers of Ajax, Ont., a suburb of Toronto. The shot was taken in 2015, after Ajax city hall granted LeMine the rights to develop a major housing project called Central Park Ajax. On Jan. 11 of this year, the project was scrapped by the city, which revoked LeMine’s right to develop the site.

The city explained in a release that “LeMine was required to begin construction by mid-2017. Unfortunately, as a result of this condition not being met and after exhausting all other options, LeMine’s right to develop the Central Park Ajax project has come to an end.”

The day after the news broke on local media the website promoting Central Park Ajax announced the project had secured $10 million in funding to begin the project. It didn’t mention the city had stripped LeMine of its rights to the project.

The website said the development is being built by Ajax Master Holdings, of which LeMine is one of many partners. Corporate records show Liu is also on the board of Ajax Master Holdings and signed its incorporation documents.

But the senior communications officer for the municipal government of Ajax, Rachael Wraith, said despite claims made on the Central Park Ajax website the project has been stopped.

“I can say very clearly the town is no longer working with LeMine developments at all or any of the other names that may be associated,” Wraith said in an interview. “We are no longer working with them. They no longer have the right to develop the project.”

The City of Ajax has no intention of working with LeMine on the development again, she said.

In February the city released another statement noting LeMine was continuing to say it is working to develop the site, stressing it does not have the right to do so.

Wraith said those who call the city asking about their deposits for presale units have been told to talk to a lawyer, adding the city has nothing to do with the presales.

A Facebook group called Central Park Ajax Purchasers representing nearly 50 buyers of the Ajax project is filled with worry as presale buyers try to figure out how to get their money back. The group is aiming to find everyone who bought in to the development, and has not ruled out filing a class action suit.

Buyer Ellen Ofori has put $25,000 towards her unit. Despite making good on her down payment and subsequent payments, she hasn't been able to get an answer from LeMine about the status of her deposit.

“Every time you call Central Park or LeMine no one answers,” Ofori said, explaining she’s heard the company doesn’t have to give the money back until they officially deliver no condo by the due date.

Ofori said she bought the condo because Ajax had “really hyped it up” and she wanted to live in a rejuvenated downtown. Now her lawyer has told her immediate satisfaction isn't likely.

“They can’t do anything until they hear from LeMine’s lawyers and they're not saying anything either,” Ofori said. “They have our funds in LeMine's trust and that’s about it.”

The message on the Central Park Ajax website mentions the deposits are being held in trust by a Toronto law firm.

851px version of groundbreakingliu.jpg
Liu with former St. Catharines mayor Brian McMullan and others in December 2016 posing at a groundbreaking ceremony for a Lemine-backed “luxury student housing development” in Toronto. It has yet to be granted a building permit, despite LeMine’s website saying all units have been pre-sold.

Central Park Ajax isn’t the only development of LeMine’s that apparently has stalled. The company’s other project, The Academy Condos in Scarborough, was celebrated by Toronto media in 2014 when it was announced. LeMine’s website boasts the presale units were sold out in a matter of weeks.

But according to the City of Toronto, the initial site plan has yet to be approved and no progress has been made in that regard.

“Typically, the site plan application will need to be approved first before building permits are issued,” said Toronto city hall spokesperson Bruce Hawkins in an email. “A site plan approval contains a set of conditions that have to be fulfilled, where the applicant would generally have two years to fulfil conditions. The time period may however be extended.”

The time period was not extended and the building permit was not issued for The Academy Condos, he said.

Nevertheless, LeMine’s website has posted a 2016 photo of Liu and others, including the former mayor of St. Catherines, Ont., Brian McMullin, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the development.

A building permit isn’t needed to stick a shovel in the ground on property you own, said Hawkins, but the project still has no building permit.

Not on the train

Last summer Liu garnered a headline in the Globe and Mail naming his LeMine a “China-focused” investor interested in building a private commuter rail line in the Ottawa region. Liu told the Globe he’d agreed to spend $5 million to study the project as a first step in partnering with others calling themselves Moose Consortium. Now, however, the head of the project, Joseph Potvin, tells The Tyee Liu’s company merely provided expression of interest letters and Moose Consortium did not move forward with LeMine.

According to media reports Liu first came to Canada as a student in 2001 and after finishing school worked at a firm called O’Canada Education and Immigration Services, which aimed to bring Chinese immigrant investors to the country.

Corporate records show O’Canada’s address is the same as a numbered company of which Liu is listed as the director.

Neither Liu nor O’Canada appears in a search of the registry of the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, the body designated by the government to regulate the industry.

In 2014 Liu organized events around Toronto meant to promote China including a flash mob downtown singing patriotic Chinese songs. A video of the event shows Liu singing next to the Chinese consul.

The video also appears on the official YouTube channel of the China Global Television Network, owned and operated by the Chinese government.

Canadian Senator Victor Oh with Thomas Liu in the LeMine offices. Oh initially said he’d only met Liu at ‘community events’ until presented with this photo by The Tyee.

LeMine shares an address with the Shanxi Merchants of Canada, which has appointed Senator Victor Oh as its honorary president. Shanxi is a province in China. Until recently Liu, whose affiliation with the group is not clear, appeared in a photo on the organization’s website with Oh.

A Globe and Mail report last year detailed Oh meeting with members of the United Front Work Department on a trip to China. The department aims to grow Beijing’s influence abroad and encourage Chinese citizens in other countries to help advance China’s interests in their adopted nations.

The president of the Shanxi Merchants of Canada, Xiangdong Zhao, was also an attendee of Trudeau’s 2016 fund raising dinner in Toronto.

The organization’s biography of Zhao says he “responded enthusiastically” to the call from the Shanxi provincial Communist Party committee, provincial government and overseas Chinese liaison office for Shanxi to help foster ties between the province and Canada.

“This fully demonstrated the influence of the Alliance of Shanxi Merchants of Canada among the local Chinese groups in Canada,” it reads.

The Tyee asked Oh’s office about his relationship to Liu and received an emailed response.

“Senator Victor Oh has no personal or professional dealings with Mr. Liu,” it read. “He has only met him on brief occasions at various community events, and has no additional comments to make regarding his person.”

The Tyee responded by pointing out photos of Liu and Oh appearing not at community events, but at Liu’s office in 2014 and on the Shanxi Merchant’s website when he received his honorary title.

Days later the photos on the Shanxi site were taken down and Liu’s office did not respond to The Tyee’s question whether Oh had requested they be taken down.

Connections in China

Liu’s contacts within China include some high-level figures. In 2015 he was invited by the State Council of China, one of the most powerful bodies in the country’s government, to participate in round table discussions about Chinese manufacturing and promotion of Chinese brands abroad.

The same year, Liu took the mayor of Ajax and some senior staff members on a trip to China where they toured parts of the country and met with state officials.

According to the city’s report of the trip, while there LeMine signed an agreement to start a venture capital fund for the Chinese Student Scholar United Forum and to start a “Sino-Canadian Twin Cities Incubation Centre.” Ajax was named as the location for the incubator but that never materialized, said Wraith, Ajax’s communications director.

James Lewis, senior vice president at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan policy research group based in Washington D.C., said Liu’s interactions with Chinese officials indicate a businessman trying to make connections.

But schmoozing business people abroad are a ripe fruit for Beijing to pick, Lewis said. He stressed he doesn’t know the specifics of Liu’s situation and hence couldn’t comment on him specifically. He noted that Chinese officials will often go to Chinese nationals doing business abroad and ask for information they’ve gleaned in the course of their work.

“The Chinese government is happy to take advantage of these wheeler dealers,” Lewis said.

Such business people often have working relationships with the Chinese government to gain support and contacts to help them with their money-making ventures, he said.

It could include Chinese officials asking for debriefs from those travelling in powerful circles in Canada, he said.

851px version of Ritz-Moore.jpg
Former Conservative cabinet ministers James Moore (left) and Gerry Ritz watch with former prime minister Stephen Harper during a trade mission to China in 2014 as Thomas Liu and a Chinese official sign a deal said to be worth $1 billion in Canadian canola oil exports.

The Chinese government has made a push to exert soft power throughout countries like Canada and Australia, including efforts like flash mobs, patriotic events or friendship and merchant associations.

Lewis again stressed he couldn’t comment directly on Liu’s case because he’s not familiar with him, but in general authorities need to take a closer look at similar individuals seeking ties with Canadian officials.

“It calls for a closer review,” he said. “Watching Chinese influence in all these countries influence operations is something that needs to be done. [Liu] may not be part of it, I want to stress, he may just be a businessman.”

Who’s vetting whom?

At a moment when Prime Minister Trudeau’s marred India trip has again raised concerns about how well the federal government vets those seeking access to government officials, The Tyee asked Global Affairs Canada how it chooses members of trade missions.

The department’s Natasha Nystrom explained in an email: “Interested companies must register for a specific trade mission and are screened for suitability based on the trade mission’s objectives. There is often a public call for registrations.”

Business people can hear about upcoming trips by joining the Trade Commissioner’s Service or via government web and social media pages.

The Tyee followed up asking how candidates are screened and did not receive a response.

The Liberal Party would not comment on how those attending functions or in close contact with the prime minister are screened for security reasons and pointed out it has opened up its fundraisers to provide transparency.

The Conservative Party of Canada did not respond to a request for comment on its vetting procedures.

The LeMine website makes this claim: “Thomas Liu has successfully built a secure global operating platform for Chinese Capital investing in Canada, which is recognized as LeMine Investment Group, a team of world-class executives with strong sense of social responsibility.”

A contact for Liu is not listed on LeMine’s website nor with the company’s telephone directory, but The Tyee reached out numerous times to the company including leaving a message with International Trade Manager for LeMine Kyle Chan, emailing Liu and his business manager Gary Chen and calling the office to leave a message for Liu.

Wednesday The Tyee sent another email with the full details of this story to Liu asking to hear his response and did not receive a reply.

An email sent via the Central Park Ajax website was not returned.  [Tyee]

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