Their place in the sun
Guergis, Jaffer had a little side trip to Temptation Island
By STEPHEN MAHER Ottawa Bureau
Tue. Apr 27 - 4:53 AM
Helena Guergis and Rahim Jaffer flew to the resort isle of Ambergris Caye, Belize, to dine with wealthy Canadian property developer Navjeet (Bob) Dhillon and Belizean politicians during an unauthorized side trip from a state visit in July 2008.
At the time, Guergis was secretary of state for international trade. Jaffer was accompanying her but had no official role on the trip to the Central American country. He was an Edmonton MP but lost an election in October of that year, after which the two married.
On April 9, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked Guergis to resign as minister for the status of women, ejected her from the Conservative caucus and referred to the RCMP "serious and credible allegations" about her, in the words of spokesman Dimitri Soudas.
Sources say that some of the allegations are related to her trip to Belize. Other sources say she "went AWOL," flying to Ambergris Caye against the advice of officials.
The Foreign Affairs and International Trade Department said Monday that if Guergis went to Ambergris Caye, she did so on her own.
"The official program did not include a trip to Ambergris Caye," said an email from a spokeswoman. "The official program unfolded as scheduled."
The government did not comment on the allegation that Guergis travelled there against the advice of officials.
The political staffer who travelled with her, Idee Inyangudor, no longer works for the government and did not return messages.
Guergis’s lawyer, Howard Rubel, who also represented Jaffer in his careless driving case, declined to comment Monday on any part of her Belize trip.
"We have stated that we will not be responding to these unfounded and spurious allegations until we can do so in the appropriate forum, and without interfering with the current ongoing reviews," Rubel said. "We look forward to putting these very unfair rumours to rest."
Guergis and Jaffer say they have done nothing wrong and deny the widely reported but unproven allegation that offshore companies were opened for them in Belize. Private detective Derrick Snowdy has said a former business associate of Jaffer’s, Nazim Gillani, indicated to him that companies registered in Belize or Panama were set aside for Jaffer: Sugar Cain Invest & Trade Inc. and Zundilon Associated Corp.
In testimony before a parliamentary committee last week, Jaffer was reluctant to acknowledge having travelled to Belize.
"Have you ever been to Belize or Panama?" asked Bloc Quebecois MP Michel Guimond.
"No, I have never been to Panama," responded Jaffer.
After being asked six times by Guimond, Jaffer acknowledged travelling to Belize but said he didn’t do business there.
"I have no idea about any of these types of business dealings in Belize because I have no interest in Belize. I don’t think I would be having the financial difficulty that I’m having trying to build a new business if I had interest in Belize. So this was complete rumour and innuendo and has nothing to do with the trip that the secretary of state, I believe, for trade had gone when she went on her own trip."
Dhillon, a prominent Alberta property developer and philanthropist who has been investing in Belize for 18 years, said Monday he never did business with Jaffer or Guergis.
"Have I ever done business with them?" Dhillon said. "The answer is no, no, no, no, no."
Dhillon is a self-made property magnate with a 1,200-hectare tourism development on scenic Ambergris Caye. He was one of three Indo-Canadian businessmen who accompanied Harper on a trip to India in November 2009. He is reportedly on his way to being the first Sikh-Canadian billionaire.
In an email, he described their dinner as an official occasion.
"In my capacity as consul for Belize in Canada, I did attend a dinner for Ms. Guergis (this was the first and only time I have met her) in Belize in 2008 hosted by the government of Belize that was attended by about 15 (to) 20 people; her husband was also present."
In a phone call, Dhillon said he had no reason to think anything was odd at the time, and he only spent a few hours with Jaffer and Guergis.
"I realize things have turned for them," Dhillon said. "At that particular time, it was a great honour to be sitting with a cabinet minister from Canada."
National Post society columnist Shinan Govani, who was staying at Dhillon’s beach house writing his novel, Bold Face Names, was at the dinner and had the impression that Dhillon was the host and picked up the tab, as he usually did. Before dinner, they went for a boat ride "for many hours" with Jaffer and Guergis.
"I remember she was peeling quite badly," he said.
Later, they dined at Matachica Beach Resort, which has a swanky restaurant that was used for some scenes of the reality TV show Temptation Island.
Govani doesn’t recall any business talk, but he wasn’t impressed by Guergis.
"I remember her talking a lot about her wedding and thinking to myself and saying to others later, ‘I can’t believe she’s a cabinet minister,’ " he said. "She was beyond unimpressive. It seemed like a Legally Blonde thing to me, but without the sparks that the Legally Blonde character actually had."
Also present at the dinner was Elsa Paz, the mayor of San Pedro.
Earlier that day, or the day before, Dhillon was photographed presenting the mayor with a cheque for about C$250,000. Prime Minister Dean Barrow and Tourism Minister Manuel Heredia were also on hand, as well as Dhillon’s longtime business associate, David Mitchell.
The gift to the town has since become controversial, as a subdivision being built by Mitchell has angered locals who complain the town has allowed Mitchell to damage the environment by bulldozing mangrove forests and dredging shallow water without proper environmental permits, leading to fish kills.
Mitchell, who is said to be publicity shy, could not be reached for comment.
Forms on his development’s website show that payments for subdivision lots go to Sugar Caye Development Ltd. S.A. at the Atlantic International Bank Ltd. in Belize.
Brian Kilgore, a spokesman for Gillani, said the names Dhillon, Mitchell and Ambergris Caye "all mean nothing to Nazim Gillani."
He said Gillani is looking forward to testifying in front of a parliamentary committee Wednesday. Gillani faces fraud charges for a money transfer in which another man, Alexander Wiafe, was convicted last week.
Snowdy has said the RCMP are investigating Guergis, but the RCMP haven’t confirmed that and have said they would only confirm it if charges were laid.