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Friday, 13 July 2018

In Cozy Ottawa, Philanthropy Provides Good Cover for Sakto Corporation


The pressure is mounting on Ottawa real-estate power couple Jamilah Taib Murray, her husband Sean Murray, and their Ottawa-headquartered firm Sakto Corporation. A new government in Malaysia is facing calls to investigate Jamilah Taib Murray’s father, Taib Mahmud, and if necessary to press criminal charges.  Taib Mahmud is a Malaysian politician who has faced decades of accusations that he accumulated billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains by raping the rainforest in Sarawak, Borneo, and then hiding that money in companies controlled by him and his family.
Jamilah Taib Murray and Sean Murray at a gala
for Elmwood School in Rockcliffe Park 

Inevitably, the pressure from Malaysia is raising the temperature back in Canada.  To date, the Canadian courts, and even Canada’s National Contact Point for the OECD, have been either unable or unwilling to draw back the curtain on Sakto Corporation. But as the heat is turned up abroad it will be harder to avoid the speculation that some of Taib’s ill-gotten gains have found their way across the Pacific.

For more La politica coverage of this story, see: Lady Luck Keeps Shining on Ottawa's Sakto Corporation. 

It was back in the 1980s when Jamilah, who came to Canada originally to go to school, received seed capital from her father to start Sakto Corporation. In the ensuing decades Jamilah and her Canadian husband Sean built an empire that includes Waterford Property Group in Ottawa and Ridgeford Development Limited in England.

Stretching the credulity of many observers, the couple has claimed their meteoric financial ascent is the direct result of hard work and uncanny business acumen. However, the Taib Murray real estate empire, now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has followed a recession-proof trajectory marked by a constant and impressive rate of high-value acquisition, with limited leverage and turnover. Try as one might, there is no mathematical formula to explain this growth other than consistent and significant infusions of cash.

The inevitable suspicion is that money has been laundered over the years from Taib senior, who is considered by some to be one of the world’s most successful kleptocrats. Over the past decades Sarawak has been pillaged, with over 90% of the rainforest gone. Taib and his family are accused of acting as modern-day timber barons, enriching themselves to the tune of many billions of dollars, and leaving the people of Sarawak to scrape by.

Given this reality, it is perhaps not surprising that Jamilah Taib Murray and Sean Murray have been active philanthropists. By spreading their money around to various causes in Ottawa, they can bolster their reputation as caring, community-minded people, while also building layers of influence and goodwill. The right amount of financial dependency can lessen the likelihood of close scrutiny – particularly among the affluent and the politically connected.

Jamilah Taib Murray: a feminist for the (very) few
  
On her Twitter profile, Jamilah Taib Murray says of herself that she’s “a mother, businesswoman, global citizen and philanthropist committed to causes relating to women, children and education.”

Her philanthropic activity – if not the source of her wealth – appears to reflect this. In the tony neighbourhood of Rockcliffe Park, Taib Murray is a strong supporter of Elmwood School, a private girls-only institution that’s only a stone’s throw from her palatial, $10 million home. At a black-tie dinner on Saturday, April 21 of this year, Taib Murray acted as the gala patron for the school’s 29th annual "Dare to Dream" gala, which raised $325,000 – the most in its history.

As patron, Jamilah Taib Murray elaborated on her egalitarian views, appearing in a promotional video for the event saying that “Elmwood has taught our girls to be more empathetic to those around them, and to those less fortunate than themselves. We have the responsibility to raise these girls up by encouraging them, by building up their self-esteem, by truly believing in their dreams. And when the door of opportunity opens up, these girls will have the confidence and the courage to walk through that door and make this world a better place.”
Jamilah Taib Murray at a National Arts Centre (NAC) gala

Noble aspirations, to be sure. However, when speaking of better places in this world, she is perhaps excluding Sarawak, which has been ripped to shreds from decades of logging, and where poverty remains endemic.

Still, Jamilah Taib Murray has been consistent in her emphasis on gender parity. In April of 2016 she donated $50,000 to “Bootcamp For Brains”, a one-week course designed to teach 15 to 17-year-old girls leadership skills, which was held at Ashbury College, a co-educational school in Rockcliffe Park that her husband Sean attended as a child, and where he now sits on the Foundation Board. When donating the money, Jamilah Taib Murray said that “Strong role models and mentors are what made me into the person I am today. Investing in the education and leadership skills of young women is one of the most important missions we have as a society. I firmly believe that women's empowerment will create a better future for generations to come.”

It is unclear whether or not some of these girls will become investigative journalists, or if the libraries at either Elmwood or Ashbury contain the book Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia, which includes extensive research into the Taib family and its staggering wealth.

Taib Murray also travelled to Lithuania on June 6-8 of this year for the Women Political Leaders (WPL) Global Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. The WPL Summit is supported by the WPL Global Forum, and includes the worldwide Girl2Leader campaign, an initiative that seeks to get more girls involved in politics.

One could argue that the political cover provided by this sort of activity is limited. However, the “soft power” exerted in the affluent and influential communities that surround Ashbury and Elmwood is not insignificant.  Ottawa mayor Jim Watson is a regular at the annual Elmwood fundraising gala, as are members of the city’s business elite. The push is consistently to present Jamilah as a kind-hearted person standing up for the underdog, usually with a cheque at the end of her outstretched hand. Recipients, perhaps willfully ignorant of the controversy surrounding Taib Murray’s wealth – though that is a generous assessment – accept the money and turn a blind eye. Once they’ve become complicit, they’re certainly not going to call out their benefactor for getting stinking rich off of environmental devastation and human suffering.

There is thematic consistency as well in Taib Murray’s now-defunct web page, where her interests gelled around women’s entrepreneurship, bullying, working mothers, gender equality, the Children’s Aid Society, and the Ottawa Food Bank. In one notable event Jamilah Taib Murray – usually in these instances identified as the “Chairman of Sakto Corporation” – hosted Heels for Meals, a networking luncheon and fundraiser for the Ottawa Food Bank’s Baby Basics Program.

Taib Murray’s full statement on her old site is important in understanding her personal psychology, and how this might be a reflection of the real anxiety she feels with regard to the origins of her considerable fortune:

The most rewarding part of growing a successful business is the opportunities it has afforded me as a mentor and philanthropist. I was fortunate to have choices when shaping my career and recognize that many individuals, especially women, do not. I see it as a personal responsibility to encourage future generations to pursue their own empowerment, create and take advantage of opportunities, and emphasize the importance of education for all people.

Helping others is a humbling and meaningful act, and I am truly grateful to use my success to better the lives of others. It is a privilege and a passion, and I am fortunate to see the impact of my efforts and contributions in local and national causes. I share these values with my husband, Sean Murray, and we hope to impart our commitment to philanthropy on our children and inspire others to as well.
The family home in Rockcliffe Park

Sean Murray: a fascination with courage and sacrifice

A similar struggle can be seen in the actions of Jamilah Taib Murray’s husband, Sean, who was raised in Ottawa as the youngest son of the well-known architect and Irish immigrant Tim Murray. With his brother Pat, Tim founded and ran the successful firm Murray and Murray Architects. However, Sean was an unexceptional student, and rather than follow in his father’s footsteps and study architecture – as did his two older siblings – he instead teamed up with his wife Jamilah to get into the real estate business.

It was a win-win for the two like-minded and ambitious souls: Jamilah Taib had now married into a respected Ottawa family that was at least peripherally connected to real estate, and Sean had access to the capital that would form the basis of his empire.

But to the extent that Sean’s success is due to his father-in-law’s kleptocracy, and the very real damage that the Taibs have inflicted on both human society and the environment, it is perhaps not surprising that Sean’s philanthropy focuses on human courage and sacrifice, two qualities rarely associated with men who marry heiresses.
A typical home in Sarawak

And where do we find courageous men who are willing to sacrifice all for abstract values, and the benefit of others? Why, at war, of course. Specifically Hill 70 in WWI, which is being honored by the Hill 70 Memorial Project.

Sean Murray’s biography on his web page sums it up:

Outside the real estate industry, Sean is committed to the protection and betterment of his country and is a strong supporter of the Canadian Armed Forces. He is a longtime supporter of the Stormont Dundas Glengarry Army Regiment, one of the oldest, most prominent, and most respected in the Canadian Army. He was honoured by the military with his appointment to the position of Honorary Lieutenant Colonel, then subsequently promoted to Colonel before retiring from the position in 2013. Sean continues to maintain a longstanding relationship with the Canadian Armed Forces and its civil liaison affiliations. He is currently part of a team which intends to build a monument in northern France to commemorate the forgotten World War I battle of Hill 70.

The Hill 70 Memorial Project allows Sean Murray to link himself to a noble cause that honours the brave and the honest. It is also the kind of philanthropy that builds networks of support which can come in handy when a person is under political pressure. And Murray, who is also active in the Vimy Foundation – where General Rick Hillier, former head of The Canadian Military and Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, acts as Honorary Chairman –  is doing this under the cover of Sakto Corporation, getting more out of the effort by presenting the philanthropy as a kind of corporate patriotism.

In effect, Sean Murray and Sakto Corporation get double mileage, while also being in good standing with the national spokesperson, Col. Chris Hadfield (the first Canadian to walk in space), and the many honorary advisers. The advisers themselves are retired heavy hitters in the Canadian establishment: the Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin, (former Chief Justice);  the Hon. John Fraser, (former Speaker of the House of Commons), the Hon. Peter Milliken, (another former Speaker of the House of Commons); the Hon. Bill Blaikie, (member of the Queen's Privy Council); the Hon. Perrin Beatty, (former Secretary of State for External Affairs); the Hon. Bill Graham, (former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of National Defence); Gen. John de Chastelain, (former Chief of the Defence Staff; former Ambassador to the United States).

That’s a lot of political heft. We know that Canada’s OECD National Contact Point (NCP), when it was trying to mediate a “remedy” between the Swiss NGO Bruno Manser Fund and Sakto, gave Sakto a slap on the wrist for “involving a Member of Parliament during the confidential NCP assessment”, though we don’t know who that individual was.

And who are the members of the Memorial Team that act within the larger Hill 70 Project Team? It consists of Sean and his sister Sarah and brother Thady, as well as their father Tim. (It is worth noting that all of the executive-level positions for Sakto Corporation, Ridgeford Properties, and Waterford Property Group, are held by either Sean or his cousins. In the case of Sakto, Sean is President and Jamilah is Chair. It’s believed by some that one reason there are no leaks is that Sean and Jamilah have strategically placed family members – and only family members – into the upper management of their various real estate interests).
Protesters outside the Ottawa home

A press release from last year is also telling. It has extensive quotes from Sean Murray with regard to the sacrifice of the over 1,500 young Canadian men who lost their lives at the Battle of Hill 70.  Then, at the bottom of the release, the explanatory note for Sakto Corporation says, among other things, that “Throughout its three decades of operation, Sakto Corporation has remained true to its core standard of excellence and integrity.” Integrity is important and needs to be called out with some frequency. Why? Because it’s what’s on their minds.

So far – and these accusations have been leveled for many years, even resulting in people picketing in front of the Taib Murray mansion – no one in the business community in Ottawa, or among the Rockcliffe neighbours, appears to be overly perturbed by the allegations of money laundering against Jamilah Taib Murray and Sean Murray. To our knowledge, no private school or food bank has said “no” to the money, and no financial services firm has had any qualms working for Sakto Corporation. Even Sakto Corporation’s tenants are blue chip, with the Attorney General of Ontario renting office space at Preston Square in Ottawa.

But there are some signs that Sakto Corporation has taken a more defensive stance. It’s Twitter feed and Facebook page have been taken down, as have the personal web pages of both Jamilah Taib Murray and Sean Murray.

This is wise. An earlier iteration of Sean Murray’s personal web page said that “Looking beyond the Canadian market in the early 1990s, and attracted by his family European origins (sic), Sean Murray’s first project outside North America was a successful hotel project in Poznan, Poland.” From there the page said that “Sean went on to co-found Ridgeford Properties with Christopher Murray in 1996 and opening an office in London’s west end in 1998. The firm has enjoyed considerable success thanks to its use of recognized architects and a sound business strategy balancing industry expertise, user requirements, investment returns, and environmental concerns.”

At one point Christopher Murray (Sean’s cousin) claimed that the provenance of Ridgeford Properties –  which now owns hundreds of millions of dollars of prime real estate in London, England –  was from the architectural firm run by Tim and Pat Murray. This is not – and never was – true: Ridgeford Properties is controlled and owned by Sakto Corporation, and always has been.

Even in these earlier years Sean was trying to pass himself off as a man driven by a strong sense of community, with his web page claiming that “Sean Murray is passionate about philanthropy and community activity. He is a…co-founder and active supporter of the Ashbury Cadet Corps and member at Young Presidents Organization.”

The story that won’t break, and the culture of secrecy

Some final words on how snobbery works in a place like Rockcliffe Park. The private schools in the area will almost always take your money (they might argue that to do otherwise would hurt the “children”, as if a prep school were a charity). Importantly, local denizens also won’t ask nosy questions about where your money comes from. That’s poor form and bad manners. Ottawa is a small town with big pretensions, and the people who are drawn to places like Rockcliffe are often conflict averse. Appearances count – a lot – and people would rather mingle with the rich, no matter how suspect, than risk the social discomfort of having to make an ethical decision with regard to “dirty money”.

But here’s the rub. That same craven attitude that looks the other way can just as easily shift when there is no social advancement – in effect, nothing to be gained, and perhaps much to be lost – from associating with people who are potentially connected to criminal activity. If that ever gets established, then the reputational risk associated from those who use philanthropy as a form of public relations is simply too high.

That might be just what’s (finally) coming down the pipe toward Jamilah Taib Murray and Sean Murray. This March Sakto and its legal team were jumping for joy – downright gleeful – when the Ontario Superior Court threw out a challenge from the Swiss NGO Bruno Manser Fund, with the Honourable Justice Sean F. Dunphy stating that the allegations of money laundering against Sakto Corporation were based on "conjecture and suspicion more than evidence." Fair enough. But the problem now is that Malaysia’s Attorney General, Tommy Thomas, is being urged to look into Taib Mahmud’s inexplicable wealth. Over the years, activists have assumed that Canada, with its reputation as an upstanding member of the OECD, would be the place where the story might break. That turned out to be false. Canada – whether we are talking about local charities, law enforcement, the courts, politicians, even to some extent the media – has little appetite for this.

Keep in mind that though things are changing in Malaysia, a full investigation of Taib Mahmud is by no means a certainty. The new prime minister in the Pakatan Harapan government, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, is a long-time ally of Taib Mahmud. Mahmud himself is a savvy operator, often influencing political decisions by proxy and seeding his loot among hundreds of companies spanning the globe, mostly controlled by loyal family members. 

On Tuesday July 3 the head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), Dr. Kelvin Yii, said that MACC had initiated 15 separate investigations, and that “there was truth in some of the allegations made against Taib” – a significant admission. But Dr. Yii then said that Taib was off the hook as he was not directly implicated in the decision-making with regard to timber concessions. Dr. Yii has also said that MACC is not in possession of all the original complaints made against Taib.  In effect, MACC is standing back and waiting for a new series of complaints to be delivered to the government, claiming that the former administration buried them. It is unclear whether or not this is a stalling tactic. What is certain is that a tsunami of new complaints is expected from the people of Sarawak. From there, it will be hard for MACC to plead ignorance and do nothing.

As well, Attorney General Tommy Thomas has been proving his mettle, putting together a prosecution team that has charged former premier Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak with three counts of criminal breach of trust and one count of using his position for financial gain. This is part of a probe into money missing from state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

No system is airtight. At some point, the truth gets out. And when that happens with Taib Mahmud, the world might find that there’s a pretty straightforward explanation for the sudden rise in the fortunes of Mr. Sean Murray, who went from being an unremarkable kid playing air guitar in his parents’ basement, to one of the richest men in Canada, and all, it seems, because he married a girl from Sarawak whose dad just happened to be a super successful politician.

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