The ugly side of student politics

How one university’s council collapsed into chaos, corruption and threatened lawsuits

Aaron Takhar was not your standard student politician.While most focus on organizing marches for lower tuition or representing students in academic disputes, Takhar saw financial opportunity in student politics. And when he came to power as president and executive adviser of the Kwantlen University College Student Association(KSA)in Surrey, B.C., in May 2005, he was determined to “focus on the money-makers,” as he wrote in an email to his fellow KSA employees in March 2006.

Now, with a new student council in place, allegations of financial impropriety and malfeasance are swirling around Takhar’s ousted administration, and his critics are vowing legal action. According to an audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Takhar dispensed almost $150,000 in unsupported payments in just the 10-month period audited. The forensic investigators hired by the new student government say that hundreds of thousands in “high risk” loans were handed out in violation of the union’s policies. As part of its investigation, PricewaterhouseCoopers recovered thousands of deleted emails detailing Takhar’s tenure — emails that critics say point to widespread corruption and improper spending.

Takhar, who studied political science at Kwantlen for two years before transferring to Simon Fraser University in 2006, says he decided to run for office because he felt that the previous student council wasn’t doing its job. The sleepy university-college campus struggled with low student participation, and a sometimes strained relationship between the KSA and the school’s administration. Thanks to his efforts, “people actually noticed the student association for once,” he says.

Laura Anderson, however, tells a very different story. She says Takhar’s brief time atop the KSA was characterized by political manipulation and rampant overspending. “It made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t stand it,” the criminology major says of Takhar’s council. “They were basically gambling with thousands of students’ money.” And that is why she fought in court for two years to get her job on student council reinstated and is now planning to sue over the forensic audit she and her fellow council members ordered when finally back in office.

According to Takhar’s critics, he was willing to do whatever was necessary to get hold of the KSA and its $1.6 million in revenues. Anderson alleges that he hired a private investigator to spy on rivals, and meddled with ballot boxes during elections. According to auditor Mary Ann Hamilton, after asserting his control, Takhar allegedly paid KSA execs and staff to do little verifiable work, made payments to a company she believed he had an interest in or controlled, and collected more than $100,000 in salary and various payments from the KSA. Takhar claims that the audit is full of inaccuracies and is biased in favour of the current council members who commissioned it.

There is no question, however, that soon after Takhar got involved in KSA politics, the student government devolved into acrimony. One of the first things Takhar did upon taking office was to call a special annual meeting to make significant changes to the society’s bylaws. Anderson says that Takhar and his supporters on council lured students to the meeting with $13,000 in prizes, including MP3 players, TVs, DVD players, and an $8,000 tropical vacation. Not only were the prizes not approved, but the draw was also rigged, “with the grand prize not being drawn randomly but rather drawn in a manner designed to ensure that a friend of the chair, Aaron Takhar, won,” according to court documents filed by Anderson.

Among the changes voted in at the meeting: reducing the number of elected students from 20 to nine; doubling their terms to two years; and expelling four rival student politicians who had also been elected to council, including Anderson. Takhar’s opponents insist the vote was not properly run, but the KSA stopped recognizing the four elected students opposed to the new regime.

In the beginning of 2006, the KSA council hired Takhar to take on the additional role of executive adviser. His employment contract shows his annual salary as $58,200, but Anderson’s court documents claim that he was actually being awarded over $115,000 per year. The PricewaterhouseCoopers audit found that in addition to his regular paycheques, the KSA was also making significant payments to a consulting company called AST Ventures. AST are Aaron Takhar’s initials, and auditor Mary Ann Hamilton wrote that she believed that Takhar had an interest in or controlled AST. He confirmed to Maclean’s that he was listed as the sole director when the company was incorporated in February 2006, and the current director of AST, Jaideep Pannu, told Hamilton that the company’s business with the KSA involved Takhar. In an interview with Maclean’s, Takhar said he is no longer involved with AST.

Generous payments were also made to several of Takhar’s associates, with little or no documentation. The audit estimates that five employees were each paid as much as $20,000 more than their salaries. Takhar says that because the KSA does not have a company credit card, they paid suppliers out of their pockets and were reimbursed. But auditors were able to find little documentation to back that up. Takhar has repeatedly accused the current KSA council of deliberately destroying those records.

In addition to these payments, auditors also found that the KSA under Takhar doled out $800,000 in “high risk” loans to various companies and individuals, many of which are unsecured. One loan was issued from protected funds to be used only for Kwantlen students’ health and dental expenses. Another went to a company that appeared to have a prior business relationship with Takhar’s family, according to the audit.

Eventually Takhar’s empire started to fall apart. His emails paint a picture of an organization in disarray. He warns one of his executives to “stay off the phone(you know what I mean). Calls to the Middle East are too expensive for us,” and he scolds the staff for “secretly ‘borrowing’ money.” Auditors found that the association racked up over $11,000 in cellphone bills during the 10-month period. Even Takhar’s own staff were raising red flags toward the end.

The audit discovered several emails among KSA officials, warning about uncontrolled spending. “I matched up the 2006 source documents with the vendors sheet. Things arent [sic] looking good,” says one email addressed to Takhar. “From AST ventures alone, we have approximately $32,000 unaccounted for … u dumb bastard [sic].”

Unfortunately, Hamilton never got to view the day-to-day accounting records in question. The laptop that apparently contained the KSA’s bookkeeping files mysteriously went missing from its offices. “It appears that the prior council was either not keeping proper records or deliberately removed these documents from the KSA main office,” Hamilton wrote. Takhar blames the missing records on Anderson’s clan.

In the summer of 2006, Anderson pursued a court order to reinstate her to council and force another election. Rather than argue the case in court, Takhar’s group agreed to another election last October. Takhar says that he agreed to the election because further litigation was just a waste of students’ money.

Evidence in the audit suggests that Takhar tried to manipulate the October election. One questionable payment was to Bilal Cheema, who is unknown to the current KSA, for $5,000. In an interview with Hamilton, Cheema said that the payment was for image-consulting work not connected to the election, but he could produce no specific evidence of his work. Emails recovered by PricewaterhouseCoopers suggest that Cheema was actually brought on board to secure a chief returning officer who would be friendly to Takhar’s team, and people to pose as campaigning students during the election.

The KSA also paid Dolo Investigations $1,776 for surveillance work conducted on the last day of the October 2006 election. When a current staff member asked Dolo for a copy of their report, they refused. The invoice was addressed to Takhar directly but he denies responsibility for the expenditure.

Despite these efforts, Takhar’s colleagues lost the election. Takhar says the vote was marred by irregularities on the other side, but he and his colleagues didn’t have the energy to continue the fight and decided it was time to move on. He was put on paid leave and fired with cause two months later after failing to attend meetings discussing his employment status.

These days, Takhar has more pressing legal problems to deal with. Last May, he and two friends were driving two vehicles near Vanderhoof, B.C., when police pulled them over for a routine traffic check. Takhar stopped, but the other SUV(which, according to police, was rented in Takhar’s name)turned down a side road and plunged into the Nechako River. One passenger was pulled from the water, but Daljit Sandhu — who received $8,000 in undocumented payments from the KSA and was one of Takhar’s party who had lost the October election — drowned. When the SUV was pulled from the river the next day, the RCMP discovered 170 marijuana plants. Takhar is now facing charges of possession for the purpose of trafficking.

The current council of the KSA is planning to launch a lawsuit against Takhar and other former KSA executives. They have also asked the RCMP to investigate. “These people came into the KSA and treated it like their own candy jar without any consideration for who they are supposed to be serving,” says Anderson.

But Takhar is not worried. “They have threatened to sue us a number of times and nothing has happened,” he says. “If they try to take it to court, they will just be wasting more student money.”

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