Party donations won’t sway council’s vote on $100-million proposal, says Surrey mayor

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Gateway casino and resort for south Surrey. Submitted photo

SAM COOPER
VANCOUVER DESI

As Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and her council consider a $100-million casino proposal, Watts says her team will not be swayed by recent election donations totalling $24,500 from parties connected to the plan.

The plan from Gateway Casinos & Entertainment Ltd. and B.C. Lottery Corp. to build a hotel, entertainment and casino complex on a South Surrey rural plot has roiled residents in recent weeks.

Although discussions for the complex at 10th Avenue and 168th Street have only been public for brief periods in 2010 and 2012, a review by The Province newspaper of court, election-disclosure, land-title and corporate registry documents reveals politically connected developers have made a dizzying array of moves on the proposed site since 2009.

Records show the plot was sold for $35,500 in May 2000, quickly rising in value to $3,333,333 in a September 2006 sale. Next, a July 2009 B.C. Supreme Court foreclosure ruling ordered First Northern Equity Group Inc. to turn the land over to a numbered company associated with Vancouver and Surrey developers Bob Cheema and Randeep S. Sarai.

That company, 0854558 B.C. Ltd., also known as 0854559 B.C. Ltd., had been incorporated on June 16, 2009.

Applicants Cheema, Sarai and Narinder Nagra asked Surrey council to rezone the South Surrey plot for a $180-million casino complex on Jan. 11, 2010.
On the same day, according to corporate registry documents, Sarai and Nagra ceased to be directors of 0854559 B.C. Ltd.

In an interview Wednesday, Cheema said that for privacy reasons he would not comment on why Sarai and Nagra were removed as directors, as the casino proposal moved forward.

News reports say Sarai was a rising star in South Asian and federal Liberal political circles, but the young Surrey developer and real-estate lawyer with connections to former B.C. Liberal MLA Wally Oppal and ex-Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell had been suspended from the B.C. Law Society in 2005 after admitting to numerous breaches, including accounting rules. In December 2010 Sarai applied for reinstatement and proved his good character, society records say.

On Jan. 11, 2010, Watts and two councillors initially voted against Cheema’s casino proposal. But the plan proceeded to a public hearing on Jan. 25, 2010, and was passed with Watts’s approval.

Election-disclosure records show that Cheema’s company, Bill’s Developments, donated $8,000 to Watts’s Surrey First team in 2011 and Gateway Casinos donated $7,500 on Aug. 17, 2011, and $9,000 on Nov. 10, 2011. The Surrey First slate swept the municipal election that November.

In an interview Wednesday, Watts said that when her council next considers the proposal on Nov. 26, ahead of a potential public hearing on Dec. 10, the 2011 donations from casino applicants will be irrelevant.

“If there is any assumption at all on anyone’s part that they get special consideration that is absolutely inaccurate,” Watts said, noting that she initially voted against Cheema’s proposal in 2010. “It comes down to knowing myself as mayor or councillors are not swayed one way or the other. We have voted against projects when people have given donations numerous times.”

It’s not clear how or why Gateway Casinos took the baton from Cheema’s original proposal. In the months following Surrey’s municipal election, land-title records show the numbered company associated with Cheema, 0854558 B.C. Ltd., was amalgamated into 0854559 B.C. Ltd., on Jan. 19, 2012. The most recent title deed for Cheema’s former South Surrey plot shows that on March 6, 2012, landholding company 0854559 B.C. Ltd. changed its mailing address to that of Gateway Casinos, in Burnaby.

On Wednesday, Cheema was reached through an attendant at Bill’s Development Ltd.

Asked about his donations to Surrey First in 2011 and the history of moves on the land for the proposed South Surrey casino, Cheema said, “you have to talk to Gateway, I have nothing to do with that proposal.

“We give money to every city hall, (Surrey) is not the only city hall we give money to,” Cheema said. “We give money to every metro party. I give money to NDP, Liberal, every party. You could talk to Gateway about that, I have nothing to do with that.”

Former Surrey Mayor and longtime Coun. Bob Bose, whose Surrey Civic Coalition was wiped out in the 2011 election, said he knows Cheema well.

Bose told The Province he believes that Cheema “still describes it as his project.”

“I was surprised that he sold his interest in it,” Bose said.

“It’s a question of optics, and the larger the donation, the worse the optics,” Bose said of the donations from Cheema and Gateway. Bose added he had received donations from Cheema in the past, but not during the 2011 election.

James Chen, general counsel for Gateway Casinos, said the company is supportive of the business development accomplishments of Watts and her council and that is why they donated to Surrey First. He noted other casino businesses donated as well.





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