Buddhist organization returns tainted money

by Paul Waldie, Globe and Mail, July 13, 2010

Charity supported by Robert Mander gives back more than $300,000 donated by the suspected fraudster

Toronto, Canada -- A Buddhist organization is giving back more than $300,000 in donations it received from a Toronto businessman who was accused of running an elaborate Ponzi scheme.

“In the circumstances, it was clear to us that it’s our moral duty to return these donations,” said Tony Meers, director-general of the Canadian chapter of Soka Gakkai International, or SGI, a Buddhist charitable organization founded in Japan. “We don’t want to keep this money. Our members wouldn’t want us to, it’s pretty obvious.”

Robert Mander died at his home in Flamborough, Ont., in March leaving investors scrambling to find out what happened to the $43-million they had entrusted to him. Investors won a court order putting Mr. Mander’s financial company, E.M.B Asset Group Inc., into receivership, and the receiver, RSM Richter Inc., has been trying to track down money ever since.

“It is evident to the receiver that Mander was operating a Ponzi scheme,” the receiver said in a recent report filed in court.

The report outlined how Mr. Mander used investor cash to make donations to SGI starting in 2005. According to the report, Mr. Mander donated $500 a month to SGI, as well as a number of gifts of $100,000. In total, Mr. Mander donated $320,500 to the organization.

Mr. Meers said SGI has co-operated fully with the receiver and is eager to return the money to investors. “We concluded that the funds that were used for donations to SGI Canada had actually been obtained by Mander on a fraudulent basis,” Mr. Meers said. “We received these donations in good faith. We would never have accepted them had there been any questions about their origin.”

Mr. Mander, who was 52 when he died, had been a follower of Buddhism for years, having joined SGI when he was a teenager. “He was reasonably active,” Mr. Meers said.

Around 2005, Mr. Mander told people at SGI that he had “inherited a tremendous amount of money,” Mr. Meers recalled. “He was investing it. He was doing very well with his investments and he wanted to share that and make donations. So we had no reason to disbelieve it.”

Mr. Meers said the only time the organization became concerned was many years ago when a Vancouver woman, Sandy Moore, met Mr. Mander through an SGI event and invested about $20,000 with him. When the money vanished, Ms. Moore complained to SGI, Mr. Meers said. “We immediately asked him to rectify the situation and make good, which he did.”

Mr. Mander returned the money and an additional $5,000. “We figured he was in the early days of his investing career and made some, maybe poor judgments. But he did make good and so we figured that was it and we didn’t hold it against him.”

Mr. Meers said the organization was stunned when revelations about Mr. Mander’s business activities surfaced after his death. Aside from the donations, Mr. Mander spent much of the investor money on homes, fancy cars, jewellery and artwork, according to the receiver.

“This whole thing blew up in everybody’s face with equal surprise and shock,” Mr. Meers said. “If this money [for the donations] had been gotten through this kind of illegal activity then there is no way that we should be hanging on to it.”