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Federal Immigration Minister Judy Sgro will step down today following allegations she promised a Brampton man asylum in Canada in exchange for assisting in her election campaign.
Sgro’s decision to step aside came only hours after the Toronto Star obtained a copy of an affidavit in which pizza shop owner Harjit Singh claims Sgro pressed him to supply food and workers for her campaign last spring.
Singh, a father of three facing deportation from Canada, alleges in the sworn affidavit filed in the Federal Court of Canada in Toronto yesterday that when word of his arrangement with Sgro started to leak out, Sgro suddenly reneged on the deal and last month ordered his arrest and removal from Canada “to save her job.”
Last night, federal sources confirmed that Sgro, 60, already at the centre of an ethics investigation over her conduct as immigration minister, would be leaving cabinet until she can clear her name.
Sgro, who is MP for York West, was named to cabinet just over a year ago. She is the first of Prime Minister Paul Martin’s ministers to step down under a cloud.
In the June 28 federal election, Sgro won her riding with nearly 65 per cent of the votes cast.
“She’s going to be stepping aside (today),” a federal source said last night.
“She absolutely denies the claims in the document. She intends to fight this vigorously,” the source said. “She is obviously very hurt and upset but realizes these are serious allegations.”
“In order to fight them appropriately she feels that she should step aside so she does not distract from the important work of the government,” the source said.
Sgro, who was at the Prime Minister’s office in Ottawa last night, was not available to comment. An official statement from the government is expected today.
Sgro has also been recently fighting allegations that a Romanian stripper was granted a ministerial permit to stay in Canada after she volunteered on Sgro’s election campaign.
Word of the affidavit reportedly came like a bombshell to Sgro, who in recent days had been expressing hope that she would soon escape the cloud of allegations that has hung over her since last fall. The allegations are being investigated by the federal ethics commissioner.
Singh, who is facing deportation next Thursday pending a last-minute hearing, says in his affidavit that he approached Sgro last year to assist him with immigration problems he and his family were having.
“I told her my whole situation and she assured me that if I helped out in her election campaign she would get me immigration in Canada,” says the father of three in his affidavit.
Singh, who came to Canada from India in 1988, helped Sgro as she asked, including pizza deliveries to her campaign office, he says in his affidavit.
“I own a pizza store in Brampton and Judy said that she wanted me to deliver pizza, garlic bread etc., to her campaign office in North York. I did this. She also said that she needed 15-16 people to help work in her campaign. I organized this for her as well.”
Sgro has spent much of her time lately fending off high-profile allegations that she dispensed political favours.
It was recently revealed Alina Balaican, a 25-year-old stripper from Romania, was granted a ministerial permit to stay in Canada after she volunteered on Sgro’s election campaign.
Balaican’s husband has told the Star that people with immigration problems flocked to Sgro’s campaign office during the election.
Sgro’s problems are the focus of an investigation by federal ethics commissioner Bernard Shapiro, who is probing claims that she dispensed favours to Singh and Balaican and allegations that she had senior advisers doing campaign work while on the government payroll.
Last night, Micheline Rondeau-Parent, spokesperson for Shapiro, said the investigation was still going on and suggested the final report is weeks away.
In recent days, Sgro has expressed optimism she would be cleared by Shapiro’s probe.
But Singh’s claims are significant because they accuse Sgro directly of improperly using her influence as a cabinet minister. It’s the first time allegations have linked the minister — and not merely her aides — to political favours.
The affidavit says Sgro told him to speak with her senior policy adviser, Ihor Wons, who would “handle everything.” Wons hasn’t returned to Sgro’s office after taking a month-long leave of absence in December. He took the leave following revelations that he met the co-owner of a Toronto strip club who wanted to get 18 strippers from the Dominican Republic into Canada.
Officials in Sgro’s office say he’s not likely to return.
Wons could not be reached for comment last night.
Singh’s immigration problems were rooted in charges he faced in 2000 for forgery and perjury when immigration officials alleged he had travelled to India on someone else’s passport.
He vigorously denies the charges in the court documents, saying, “I can only assume that this is part of an effort made by certain persons to frame me for crimes that I did not commit. I am completely innocent.”
The charges were stayed in court after an Indian police inspector testified that Singh was not the person who had travelled on the passport, the affidavit says.
After Sgro won her seat in the election last year, Wons told Singh “that he would forward the clearance to immigration in Ottawa,” says the affidavit.
Included in the court documents is a certificate signed by Sgro thanking Singh for his “outstanding contribution to my 2004 re-election campaign.”
But Sgro’s friendly relationship with Singh was about to sour.
“Ihor called me and told me that there is a lady working under Sgro, her name is Katherine Abbott, and that whatever had happened in Toronto regarding my case and other people’s cases, Katherine had opened her mouth and talked about it.”
When contacted last night, Abbott refused to comment.
The growing threat of publicity triggered an about-face in Sgro’s office, says Singh, whose court file includes as exhibits copies of two Star news stories about allegations of inappropriate arrangements between Sgro and constituents seeking immigration help.
“Ihor also told me that now because of Katherine opening her mouth, it has put Judy into trouble, so he said that Judy will not be able to do anything for me regarding my situation,” Singh says in the affidavit.
“He requested me not to talk to the media regarding my case.”
It was clear at this point that Sgro was not going to honour the arrangement, Singh concluded.
But beyond the failed deal, things became much worse on Boxing Day when Singh was arrested and taken into custody, the affidavit says.
In a detention review on Dec. 30, he says he was told that an arrest warrant was issued against him because he had failed to report to authorities on Dec. 6.
He claims he actually did report that day but was told to return Jan. 3.
Singh says in his affidavit that he has been required to sign in with immigration authorities regularly since 2001 and has always done so.
“There is no reason why I would miss this date,” he says.
Around the same time, he says, an immigration lawyer from Ottawa called his house asking for him.
“My family informed me that she asked what the problems were and she said that I had allegations against me by Judy Sgro.”
Singh says in the statement that he is “overwhelmed” by what has happened to him and fearful of being deported.
“I have been here for 16 years and have no criminal record. My whole family is here and my wife’s grave is here. I have worked hard in Canada. What am I going to do if I am sent back to India? I have no one there. My family, my business and all of my property is here in Canada.”
Wennie Lee, Singh’s Toronto lawyer, said last night that she has requested a hearing on Monday to seek an injunction against the deportation order. That hearing date has not yet been confirmed.
She said she has advised Singh not to speak publicly until the hearing is complete.
Robert Cribb, Toronto Star, Jan. 15
Harjit Singh, the man who yesterday toppled a federal cabinet minister with allegations of political favouritism and abuse of power, took part in a $1 million credit card scam with his three children, a court ruled last year.
And he now faces another civil suit for non-payment of a $57,000 legal bill launched against him by the lawyer who defended him.
It’s all part of an intriguing and often contradictory portrait emerging of the man who triggered the resignation of immigration minister Judy Sgro yesterday amid allegations that she promised him asylum in Canada in exchange for help on her campaign, then used her power to remove him from the country when news of the arrangement began to leak out.
Singh, 49, is locked inside Toronto West Detention Centre awaiting an immigration hearing and a looming deportation date of next Thursday.
But court documents, detailed immigration records and interviews with those who know him portray a man who is a sophisticated fraudster, churchgoing Mennonite, deeply depressed widower and father fighting desperately to keep his family together in Canada.
Court documents, obtained by the Toronto Star, show that last June a judge ruled that Singh, his two sons Surinderpal Singh and Parminder Singh and his daughter Jatinder Kaur, “acted jointly in skimming credit and debit cards, in making counterfeit cards and in using them fraudulently.”
Canada’s five major banks filed a civil suit in 2000 against 16 people including Singh, his wife and his three children. Singh was never convicted of a criminal offence.
The civil suit claimed damages of more than $1 million for conspiring “to steal credit and debit card data and manufacturing counterfeit cards.” Those fraudulent cards were then used “to make purchases, cash advances and to access cardholder bank accounts,” the banks alleged in their statement of claim.
The judge ruled: “These defendants agreed to work together in a common cause and, towards that end, one or more of them from time to time, with confederates as required, engaged in one or more of the three parts of the fraudulent scheme in order to advance their common cause.”
Satinder Kaur, Singh’s wife, died in March 2004, and was not found responsible.
When police searched Harjit’s home in September 2000, they seized nine credit cards from the top of his bedroom dresser, according to the court records.
Police determined one of the cards appeared to be an Esso card encoded with Bank of Nova Scotia account information belonging to an acquaintance of Singh. Several other cards, the judge found, were used “to manufacture additional counterfeit cards.”
The judge awarded the banks damages of $577,174.44 for the fraud committed by the Singh family. But the family settled with the banks for $300,000, court documents indicate.
The Singhs purchased their upscale home in a sprawling subdivision of Brampton near Airport Rd., north of Bovaird Dr., in January 2004, for $485,000. On Dec. 2, 2004, a charge was registered against the home in the sum of $300,000 — the same amount of the settlement reached in the credit card fraud judgement, according to court records.
As the Star reported yesterday, Singh filed a sworn affidavit in federal court this week alleging Sgro traded assurances of asylum in Canada for help recruiting volunteers for her re-election campaign last year. That arrangement began to unravel after the election when a Sgro aide began threatening to speak openly about it, the affidavit claims.
From then on, Singh alleges Sgro distanced herself from her promise and began using her influence to remove him from the country. “I believe that now to save her job Judy Sgro is using her power to remove me from Canada,” the affidavit says.
Singh purchased a family-run business — Pizza Market — last year for $115,000. Reporters outnumbered customers at the Brampton pizza shop yesterday.
“No comment. No comment. No comment,” replied the young woman behind the counter when asked about Singh. A staff member identified her as Singh’s daughter. But when asked to confirm, she would only say, “no comment.”
Singh’s daughter, Jatinder Kaur, pleads in a sworn affidavit in his immigration file that her father “has no one if he were to return to India. If something happens to him, there is no one he can turn to. He had previously tried to commit suicide in 2004 and was admitted to Credit Valley Hospital. He is very depressed now and I am concerned about his well-being.”
Sarwar Din, pastor at Evangelical Asian Church in Toronto, says Singh and his family, converts to Christianity, have been regular churchgoers for years. “He is a very nice guy,” Din said yesterday. “From time to time, I would pray with him. His whole family used to come to church.”
He said Singh’s immigration and legal problems were not a secret. “I heard about (the credit card fraud allegations). He told me a story that somebody blamed him and went to their house and did something to create a problem for him. But then, later on, he showed me some paper, saying, ‘No, I was not guilty, I did nothing wrong.’ He told me he’s clear. I don’t know.”
Gursewak Brar Singh said he’s known Singh since 1999, when his business partner introduced them. “This guy is not a danger to society,” he said yesterday. “All I know is that he was undergoing deportation… . When his wife was sick he (Singh) was told he could stay (in Canada) because she was seriously ill. He was told he could stay as long as she was alive.”
Singh’s current legal battle involves his one-time legal defender. Following the result of the credit card fraud case, Singh’s former lawyer, Mark Klaiman, filed a civil suit against Singh, his daughter and wife for $57,133.30 in unpaid legal bills, court documents show.
Klaiman’s statement of claim alleges Singh indicated he couldn’t pay the bill because he was subject to a deportation order, was leaving Canada permanently and that he’d sold the family home to pay an existing first mortgage and the $300,000 civil judgment in the bank case.
Based on that information, Klaiman settled the bill for $5,000, the claim states.
The lawyer’s statement of claim alleges Singh was being “false and misleading” and that the family has “not sold their home, nor did they utilize the proceeds from the sale to pay the existing first mortgage or the outstanding judgment.”
The case is before the courts.
(Posted on January 17, 2005)