This is the second in a series of articles investigating Montreal businessman, Albert Mashaal, who is the defendant in a lawsuit, accused of misappropriating $1 million from the estate of his late friend, Jack Sofaer.
See FR Investigation: Did Bigtime Montreal Developer Swindle a Million From Friend’s Daughter?
The plaintiffs in the case are the Estate of Jack Sofaer and Sofaer’s daughter, Rhonda Sofaer, the principal heir to the estate. The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in December in the Superior Court of Quebec in Montreal.
The lawsuit alleges that Mashaal and four associates conspired to convert assets of the estate. Based on allegations, the trial may be the genesis of a criminal investigation by the Surete du Quebec, or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with possible involvement of the FBI, the latter because certain crimes allegedly occurred in the USA.
When contacted by Frank Report, defendant Mashaal denied the allegations, claiming Rhonda Sofaer is “crazy,” and the lawsuit “frivolous.”
The trial was scheduled for November 2020 but was delayed more than a year after Mashaal chose to retain a new attorney who asked for an adjournment.
Civil lawsuits in Quebec have a burden of proof standard of “a balance of probabilities,” meaning the chances of the allegations being true are more than 50%.
A Long Ordeal
The late Jack Sofaer was a stockbroker and trader. A resident of Montreal, he was wintering in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his girlfriend, Lilliane, when he had a seizure, was rushed to the hospital, and died on Sunday, March 3, 2013. He was 87.
Part of Iraqi-Jewish Community
The late Sofaer and Albert Mashaal had been friends for decades. Both men were Iraqi-Jews, who fled Iraq during the early 1950s, came to Canada, and became affluent.
Rhonda Sofaer recalled she first met the man she now is accusing of swindling her and her father’s estate, when she was five, and that her father and Mashaal saw each other socially frequently. After Rhonda’s mother died, Mashaal introduced her widower father to Lilliane, who lived with him for 25 years, and up until the time of his death.
Estate Made Rhonda the Main Beneficiary
According to the Last Will and Testament of Jack Sofaer, Rhonda inherited the majority of the estate. Longtime live-in companion, Lilliane inherited two homes that she and Jack had lived in together – a million dollar home in Montreal – free and clear of mortgages or other encumbrances and a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, condo – also free and clear, worth about $350,000 – both owned by Jack.
He also provided Lilliane, who was 21 years his junior, with annuities paying, Rhonda says, about $75,000 per year.
In addition to Rhonda and Lilliane, several other relatives inherited money.
Three Trustees Handled the Estate
The Last Will and Testament of Jack Sofaer named three trustees [also called liquidators in Quebec law]. Rhonda was one of the trustees The second was accountant Alan Wiener. The third was Manik Sincennes, the son of Jack’s girlfriend, Lilliane.
Sincennes had been managing one of Jack’s stock portfolios at the bank where he worked as a portfolio manager.
Rhonda said she felt that the son of her late father’s girlfriend, who managed millions of dollars worth of her father’s stocks, should not also be liquidating those same stocks.
She replaced Sincennes with her father’s old friend, Albert Mashaal, then 79, as third trustee for the estate, in May 2013, two months after her father’s death.
Mashaal Was Competent, Wealthy, Savvy
Albert Mashaal is well known in Montreal and in the Iraqi-Jewish community as a successful businessman. As president of Yale Properties Limited, he forged joint-ventures with Standard Life Assurance Company of Canada, and Manulife, where hundreds of millions of dollars in property under his company’s managerial control were developed.
Mashaal’s company developed significant joint ventures in Calgary, Alberta, and Toronto, developing some 3.3 million square feet of office, retail and industrial assets. His company also developed the landmark Jackson Square, an indoor shopping mall, commercial, and entertainment complex in Hamilton, Ontario.
Mashaal Needed Help
According to court filings and interviews:
Shortly, after his appointment as trustee for the estate of Jack Sofaer, Mashaal arranged to retain a lawyer, an accountant and a bookkeeper.
Their retainer agreements (called mandates in Quebec estate law) were open-ended and without fee structures, scope of work, hourly rates, or billing procedures. This is alleged as a violation of attorney and accountant Professional Codes of Ethics.
According to the lawsuit, Mashaal told Rhonda she should sign about 20 blank checks from the estate’s bank account, so he could take care of incidental expenses, such as snow removal, lawn cutting, and other miscellaneous expenses connected to her father’s real properties, and in order for him to be efficient in taking the lead in liquidating the estate.
With some 20 blank checks signed by Rhonda, and with open-ended retainer agreements, Mashaal’s team was able to work without having to prepare monthly bills describing the nature of their work or detailing disbursements. With blank checks already signed by Rhonda, they were able to make payments without having to explain to her, the primary legatee, every little detail to get her approval on each and every expenditure.
Rhonda alleges she fully trusted Mashaal, her father’s friend since she was a child, and that was the reason she signed the blank checks, and now alleges that Mashaal mischaracterized the use of the blank checks, which forms a significant portion of the lawsuit. Mashaal denies this claim.
The team of professionals Mashaal retained for the estate were attorney Nicole Benchimol, accountant, Jeffrey Schrier, and bookkeeper, Tina Vitaro. They seemed to have collaborated felicitously with the third trustee CPA, Allan Wiener, who, like the others named above, is a defendant in the lawsuit.
The Team Were No Strangers
The lawyer, accountant and bookkeeper who were retained to assist Mashaal in liquidating the estate, are alleged to have known Mashaal for years. It is also alleged that attorney Benchimol had an office in Mashaal’s building, and was in-house counsel for Yale.
Rhonda claims Benchimol managed a portfolio of her father’s investments, believed to have been valued at about $5 million.
The accountant, Jeffrey Schrier, was allegedly Mashaal’s accountant. Rhonda claims that when Mashaal chose to retain him, he did not disclose that Schrier had been removed from the rolls of the Certified Association of Chartered Accountants for a three-year period because of fraud.
The bookkeeper for the estate, Tina Vitaro, also allegedly worked for Mashaal for years.
During the early days of his trusteeship, Mashaal and his team took the lead in handling the estate. Rhonda says she was initially pleased and prepared to be patient about the liquidation of the estate. She said she estimated her inheritance would be about $20 million, after estate taxes were paid and all other bequests to other legatees were made.
She could afford to be patient getting the $20 million because a provision in the Will required the trustees to make a $1 million payment to her “as soon as possible,” after Sofaer’s death.
By the summer of 2013, several months after Mashaal and his team took possession of the financial records and documentation for the Estate, Rhonda allegedly asked Mashaal to see her father’s bank statements, which she alleges she was entitled to do as a trustee for the estate. According to Rhonda, Mashaal told her to set up a meeting with attorney Benchimol.
Rhonda claims that at a meeting, Benchimol said it was her interpretation of the Will that the estate had to be entirely liquidated before the $1 million would be paid to her.
Rhonda said she understood the intent of the Will differently, and that the provision clearly meant that she was to get $1 million “as soon as possible” after her father’s death and that therefore it did not require the entire estate to be settled. Insofar as she expected to inherit some $20 million, she wondered why her father would put a provision in the Will that Rhonda would be given $1 million “as soon as possible” if, as Benchmol said, she would not get $1 million until the entire estate was settled.
According to Rhonda, Benchimol shocked her by saying she thought it was possible that when they finished settling the estate that all Rhonda would get was $1 million and nothing more.
Rhonda retained her own attorney, Brahm Campbell, who advised her that his interpretation of the Will is that she was to get payment of the $1 million as soon as the trustees liquidated the first million and she should not have to wait until the entire estate was settled.
Rhonda alleges she told Mashaal of her attorney’s opinion and that Mashaal agreed with his interpretation, adding, according to Rhonda, that she would get the million within a few weeks and that there was nothing to worry about, he was handling the estate and that, as her father’s trusted friend, there was no chance of her getting anything less than what she rightfully was to inherit.
Mashaal, Rhonda claims, reiterated what he told her numerous times: That he was doing this out of friendship and was not taking any money for his role as a trustee.
Based on his assurance, Rhonda entered into a purchase contract for a house in Sedona, Arizona, for approximately $800,000, putting a $30,000 deposit down. A month passed. Then another. When it came time to close on the Sedona property, Rhonda said she went to Mashaal and was told there were certain delays in liquidating the estate.
Unable to close on the property, Rhonda forfeited her $30 thousand deposit.
Late Summer and Fall of 2013
Throughout the late summer and into the autumn, after losing her deposit, Rhonda said she struggled to get information from Mashaal and the team handling the estate. By November, eight months after her father died, Rhonda did not have any money from the estate. After losing $30,000 she placed on deposit, Rhonda said she was almost out of money. To pay for living expenses, Rhonda took a mortgage on her home in downtown Montreal.
Exasperated, that she had to borrow money to pay her living expenses, while she stood to inherit some $20 million, Rhonda asked her lawyer Campbell to send Mashaal an email, which he did on Nov. 7, 2013, requesting immediate payment of the $1 million, as provided in the Will.
The following day, Mashaal responded, saying the Estate could not now make any payment, explaining that he was only a volunteer trustee, trying to help liquidate his old friend’s estate. He wrote, “I won’t ask for one cent from my position as Trustee.”
Campbell requested a meeting for Nov. 11 to explain why Mashaal could not authorize payment of $1 million after eight months. Mashaal declined to attend.
Alarmed by his refusal to meet, Rhonda went to the bank where the estate had an account and discovered that many of the blank checks she had signed for incidental expenses had been cashed for large, lump sum payments of money.
On November 13, Rhonda’s attorney sent a demand letter to Mashaal requiring him to transfer all estate documents to a “neutral, objective accounting firm,” Schwartz Levitsky Feldman – by Nov. 15.
Mashaal declined to turn over the documents.
A Lawsuit Gets Started
On November 25, Rhonda initiated a legal proceeding for the execution of a seizure before judgment to take possession of the books and records and all assets of the Estate of Jack Sofaer.
When Mashaal and Benchimol were served by the bailiff, it is alleged they told the bailiff that they could not turn over the books and records of the Estate because they did not have them in their possession.
The judge thought differently however and ordered Mashaal to turn over the books and records – which, it turned out, were in his office after all.
Once in possession of the books and records, Rhonda says she found that the balance of the Estate’s bank account was in the multiple millions and that there had been more than $1 million on deposit for months, making the failure to pay her the $1 million suspicious.
The judge ordered the immediate payment of $1 million to Rhonda.
Rhonda Looks Deeper
According to the lawsuit, Rhonda continued to investigate and discovered that, while Mashaal would not authorize payment to her of $1 million, he paid himself, using one of the blank checks she had signed, the sum of $180,000.
As a trustee Mashaal was not permitted to pay himself without approval of the other trustees, including Rhonda.
Records show that, several months after being notified of the illegal transfer by Rhonda’s lawyer, Mashaal reimbursed the $180,000 to the Estate.
According to the Will, no one was to be paid prior to the complete liquidation of the estate other than Rhonda’s $1 million payment.
Rhonda discovered however that during the time she waited for her $1 million and lost her deposit on the house she tried to buy in Sedona, Mashaal, as trustee, authorized Lilliane, and others to be paid.
In addition, the lawsuit alleges that attorney Benchimol, during seven months as attorney for the estate, received $707,660 for “professional services.” The entire sum was paid by blank checks Rhonda signed for “incidentals”.
Benchimol had not submitted a single invoice describing the nature of her work to justify $100,000 worth of legal fees, month after month, to handle the liquidation of an estate.
Once the lawsuit commenced, Benchimol submitted invoices, retroactively, describing various services. [In a later post, we will analyze the scope of her claimed work.] Rhonda is expected to call expert witnesses to testify as to the fairness and fact witnesses to the veracity of the billings and the work and of whether it is inappropriate to have a retainer without hourly fees and to submit bills months after taking payment for services.
In another suspicious financial transaction, the lawsuit alleges that Benchimol, while acting as attorney for the estate, purchased real estate from the estate, without disclosing it to Rhonda. Benchimol purchased her father’s condo directly from Lilliane and prior to the liquidation of the estate.
The condo Benchimol allegedly purchased was the Fort Lauderdale condominium bequeathed to her father’s domestic partner, Lilliane.
At, or around the time Benchimol was buying the condo from the estate, Mashaal and Benchimol arranged to pay Lilliane from the estate, ahead of Rhonda, as records show.
The lawsuit raises a challenge for attorney Benchimol. She was paid more than $700,000 from the estate for “legal services” and it is alleged this was disproportionately high. It is also alleged that she purchased a condominium from the estate, which allegedly was sold to her for $350,000.
The clear inference here is that Benchimol overcharged the estate by enough money to get a free condominium in Florida – from the estate. If the lawsuit is proven, it is possible it may lead to disbarment proceedings against Benchimol, if not criminal charges.
Benchimol, however, was not the only member of Mashaal’s team to allegedly get overpaid through blank checks signed by Rhonda.
Accountant Jeffrey Schrier, who once was accused of fraud on another matter, received payments totaling $206,415 for six months of accounting services.
Like Benchimol, Schrier did not submit invoices until after the lawsuit commenced and not until months after the purported services were rendered.
Bookkeeper, Tina Vitaro, whose online presence seems to be nil, was paid $106,674, which, it is claimed, is excessive payment for a bookkeeper who worked half a year on a part-time basis. Many bookkeepers who work full time do not get paid $100,000 for a full year of work.
Even the other trustee, Alan Wiener got $68,341 for services rendered, and for which it is unclear what those services actually were, according to court filings.
All told, the team of “professionals,” combined, received $1,089,090 from the estate of Jack Sofaer.
There were other financial matters that are alleged as suspicious and may be relevant at trial. Mashaal allegedly created a “secret” portfolio with CIBC Wood Gundy without advising Rhonda.
A suspicious payment of $100,000 was paid to a man who was not named in the Will. It is unclear why this payment was made, but the man was allegedly living in a nursing home and was incapacitated. The man’s daughter wound up cashing the check. She was not named in the Will either.
Part 3 of the Mashaal Lawsuit series will look at Mashaal’s holdings in Yale Properties Limited and other lawsuits his company faced.
Part #4 looks into attorney Nicole Benchimol’s legal fees charged to the Estate, her purchase of a Florida condo owned by the estate, and what happened to an approximately $5 million portfolio Benchimol allegedly managed for Jack Sofaer prior to his death.
Because of the way in which the estate was handled, it is unclear if the alleged portfolio was liquidated and deposited into the estate of Sofaer or not.
More to follow…