On April 1st, the day that the Kwantlen Student Association’s new executives took office, the KSA’s five rookie execs voted to designate their Director of Operations, Justine Franson, to be the “sole liaison with KSA legal counsel.” At a council meeting five days later, they replaced the law firm Heenan Blaikie with Taylor Nakai Litigation. Franson told the school newspaper, The Runner, that the change was made because a Heenan Blaikie lawyer had gone to school with a fired staff member who had launched a wrongful dismissal suit earlier in the year. A potential conflict of interest, she said. Better safe than sorry.
Thus began a five month period in which the new executive has faced repeated questions about potential conflicts of interest, about money spent on a Sikh parade and about the banishment of a former director from their office. That five months has also included a funding dispute with the student newspaper, which came after the executive temporarily banned recordings of council meetings and demanded corrections to their stories. Now, new questions are arising over costs of a hip-hop concert, Cram Jam, that’s set to happen Sept. 8.
The legal case files Franson was handed so early in her term included one lawsuit that made headlines and shocked students at the suburban Vancouver polytechnic when it was announced in 2008. The case accuses five former KSA executives, including then-Director of Finance Aaron Takhar, of breaching their fiduciary duties relating to $760,000 of student money during their terms in office, which began in 2005. The case has been stalled since the lawyers were replaced on April 1.*
Franson’s appointment to that file raises serious questions about the KSA’s handling of the matter. After refusing to answer questions about her identity put to her by Maclean’s On Campus, a local radio station proved that Franson is Aaron Takhar’s sister and she has since resigned her position.
When Matt DiMera, a reporter from The Runner, visited Takhar’s house to try and confront Franson, Nina Kaur, the KSA’s current Director of Finance, answered the door. Kaur wouldn’t answer DiMera’s questions about her potential links to Takhar or Franson, but KSA President Sean Birdman confirmed by e-mail on Thursday that Kaur and Takhar are related too.
Before Franson quit, she told Maclean’s On Campus that the student union has a policy of only allowing President Sean Birdman (who also goes by the names Sean Bassi and Diddy Birdman) to speak on the executive commitee’s behalf. Birdman has declined multiple phone interview requests and has only responded to some e-mailed questions. All of the council members have been contacted, but none responded until Friday, when Kaur finally picked her phone.
“I don’t think I really have to disclose anything about my personal life. It’s sort of like a privacy thing,” Kaur said. “But like I said, I completely respect everyone’s concern, which is why I do acknowledge that there may be an appearance of a conflict of interest, which is why I’ve taken steps to ensure that I will of course be abstaining from anything that has to do with any civil matters pertaining to lawsuits against any previous directors or anything from that,” she added. She also noted there’s now an independent committee charged with handling the suit.
Maclean’s On Campus has not yet been able to get in contact with a third member of five-person executive team: Tarun Takhar, who seconded Kaur’s motion to make Franson the sole legal go-to on April 1st. It’s unclear if there is any relation to Aaron. Tarun Takhar has not responded to calls to his office phone or questions sent to his work e-mail.
Kwantlen students were abuzz on Twitter and Facebook in early August, discussing Franson’s resignation and the questions surrounding Kaur’s relationship to Takhar, when Jeff Groat, the co-ordinating editor of The Runner, called to inform On Campus that the newspaper might not be able to pay its staff this fall. More than $60,000 in student fees collected by the university and earmarked for the paper were transferred to the KSA, but the KSA had not yet forwarded the funds. Instead, they had asked the university to freeze the money “in trust” until they could settle their dispute with The Runner.
Joanne Saunders, Kwantlen’s spokesperson, told Maclean’s On Campus Friday that because the university and the KSA are legally separate entities, there wasn’t much they could do to help the newspaper get it’s funds. But they did look for a solution. “For the past three weeks we were working with our lawyers to determine if we have any rights to do anything,” she said. “But it looks like it’s not necessary now.“
Groat confirmed Friday that they had convinced the KSA to hand over the money.
Birdman explained, via e-mail why they had been unwilling to forward the cash earlier. “The KSA had significant concerns with respect to the accuracy of some stories published by The Runner which were not being addressed,” Birdman wrote, adding. “PIPS [the Polytechnic Ink Publishing Society that owns The Runner] and the KSA will soon be engaging a 3rd party [sic] mediator to resolve these issues.”
The reporters had already been working under journalistic restraint when they learned their funds were in limbo. Council would not answer many of DiMera’s questions in person. Then, on May 11, they banned all recording devices from meetings. “Directors felt uncomfortable,” Birdman (Bassi/Diddy) wrote in a separate e-mail to Maclean’s On Campus. “This also impeded the efficiency of meetings because Director’s [sic] felt their privacy was being invaded,” he added. Birdman, for the record, says he is not related to Aaron Takhar.
The case against Takhar, which lies at the heart of this turmoil, followed a forensic audit that alleged he had made high-risk loans totaling $620,000 to Westlund Properties and Apex Communications and made $140,000 in “unaccounted for” payments to companies such as AST Ventures. “I believe that Aaron Takhar has an interest in and/or controls AST Ventures,” concluded auditor Mary Ann Hamilton in the July 2007 report. (Aaron’s middle name is Singh—as in AST Ventures.) Westlund Properties had previously loaned money to Kultak Financial, a company registered at the same address listed on Aaron’s payroll information with the KSA. His mother’s name is Kuldip Takhar, noted Hamilton, who wrote: “It seems that the KSA may have be introduced to Westlund and Apex through the Takhar family’s prior relationship.”
[Those were only some of the allegations against Aaron Takhar. Read The ugly side of student politics by Erin Millar for more.]
The parties involved in the suit agreed to a new election in October 2006 after the alleged improprieties were discovered by then council-member Laura Anderson. After the auditor’s report was published, the new student union executive launched a suit in 2008.**
The court dates that followed weren’t the only time Takhar faced the legal system. Police arrested him in his Mercedes Benz near Vanderhoof, B.C. in May 2007, just two months before the auditor’s report was published, after a van rented in his name was found to contain 170 marijuana plants. Two of Takhar’s friends were in the van when it sped away from police, turned down a mountain road and plunged into the Nechako River. Daljit Sandhu was found drowned weeks later. The other passenger, Pritpal Virk, was shot dead in Surrey, B.C., nine days after the drug charges were stayed. Takhar’s charges were also stayed.
The resignation of Justine Franson was only the latest in a series of KSA controversies. At the new executive’s second council meeting, on April 14, the KSA made sweeping changes to regulations that gave some members, including the executive, a 40 per cent pay raise, in part by increasing their weekly paid hours. At the same meeting, they took away a rule that required them to attend at least one meeting per month during the summer. They also tried to have executives’ summer courses paid for by the student body. And it was also decided in camera that Reena Bali, the former Director of Events (one of the five executive positions) would be banned from entering the student union’s offices during her successor Tarun Takhar’s, office hours.
Franson told The Runner that the decision was made because Bali had “legally threatened” Takhar, but she wouldn’t say how. More than three months later, she gave a report to council that included a letter from Takhar outlining an incident in which he said he felt “very scared of Reena and her people who may try to do something.”
Bali says she did, in fact, confront Takhar in April, because he failed to show up for a meeting she had set up in March in order to train him on his new portfolio. She expressed her worry that he wouldn’t be prepared for the huge annual Cram Jam concert, coming up on Sept. 8.
Cram Jam has created even more controversy since. The back-to-school party’s budget was increased earlier in the summer from $50,000 to $82,000, much to the dismay of clubs and advocacy groups that lost funding as a result. Council resolved to hire a “high-lining hip-hop artist” for the event. Bali thinks that the bigger budget is a mistake, considering Cram Jam lost nearly $50,000 in 2008 on a budget of $100,000.
Birdman has already accepted that money will be lost. He wrote to On Campus on Friday to say that “CramJam, as always, is a subsidized event,” and that “increased costs,” related to fencing, insurance, municipal and policing requirements will put the total “in the same range” as “previous Cram Jam concerts,” which “have cost up to $120,000.” But he also says more attendees are expected because “a bigger artist,” someone by the name of Jay Sean, has been hired to perform.
Another controversy covered by The Runner involved Bali’s boyfriend, Harj Dhesi, the Richmond Campus Director, who is responsible for social events and operations of the satellite campus office. He had his pay cut in May of this year after the new executive deemed him to have delivered an “insufficient report” to council. The executive said he was “not doing any work.”
Dhesi wouldn’t comment, but one thing’s clear. He holds a council vote and often uses it against the new executive. In one report, he wrote that he was “not pleased with the Executive Board’s decision to release $3,500 for an event that had NO budget breakdown.” The event in question was Vaisakhi, an annual Sikh parade. When a student voiced concern at a council meeting about spending money on a seemingly religious parade, Franson said the event is not religious, but rather, a “harvest celebration.” Vaisakhi’s own website lists it as the one of the most important dates in the Sikh religion. Maclean’s On Campus twice asked Birdman to provide receipts. The first time, he wrote that it would take more than a week. Two weeks later, he wrote that “our financials are available to members upon request.”
To recap, in just five months, the new KSA council has banned reporters from recording their meetings, briefly cut off funds to the student newspaper, had a member resign due to an apparent conflict of interest, faced questions over money spent on a seemingly religious parade, banned a former executive from the council office, cut the hours of one of their critics and added $32,000 to the budget of a party that lost $50,000 two years ago.
When school begins on Tuesday, the questions will surely continue.
*The original version of this article incorrectly stated Aaron Takhar faced more serious charges than his fellow KSA executives in connection with a lawsuit alleging financial mismanagement at the KSA. This is not the case.
**The original version of this article stated Takhar ran and lost in an October 2006 election ordered by a judge. The election was in fact the result of an out-of-court settlement and Takhar was not a candidate.