A civil lawsuit in Montreal has been ongoing for eight years between the president of the well-known Montreal development and management company, Yale Properties Limited, and the estate of one of his former friends.
Albert Mashaal, longtime president of Yale, is the defendant in the lawsuit which alleges he swindled about $1 million from the estate of Jack Sofaer, a friend of his for some five decades and a fellow Iraqi Jew.
Sofaer died in 2013 but the lawsuit lingers and is expected to go to trial in December.
The most interesting part of this otherwise far-too-typical estate fraud swindle by a trustee is the dollar amount – $1 million.
The $1 million is noteworthy not because it is a large amount of money, but just the opposite. It seems small for a man of Mashaal’s stature and reputation.
Mashaal’s company is considered one of the biggest development and holding companies in Montreal, with additional holdings in Toronto, Calgary, Alberta and Hamilton, and in the USA. If Albert Mashaal would steal, why stoop to stealing a mere million – as the lawsuit alleges?
It doesn’t add up.
Yet, it’s not as simple as dismissing the matter by calling it – as Mashall has done – “a frivolous lawsuit” or by saying Mashaal doesn’t need the money, therefore he wouldn’t steal.
The evidence against Mashaal is compelling.
See our previous stories in this series: FR Investigation: Did Bigtime Montreal Developer Swindle a Million From Friend’s Daughter?
As trustee of the estate of his friend, Mashaal allegedly requested and obtained blank checks, signed by the daughter of Sofaer, and used them to pay himself, and a team of associates, more than one million dollars – while allegedly playing a shell game with the assets of the estate – all the while pretending he was like an uncle to the grieving daughter – while hiding transactions from her.
Mashaal is on record lying – writing in an email to daughter Rhonda’s attorney, saying he wasn’t taking “one cent” for his services as trustee, then using one of the blank checks to write himself a check for $180,000.
After the lawsuit commenced and this payment was discovered, Mashaal reluctantly returned the money. He had to – it was an illegal transfer.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Evidence suggests that had the late Jack Sofaer’s daughter, Rhonda, not retained a lawyer when she did – much more would have been taken from the estate than the million in question.
In fact, there is evidence that suggests more than $1 million was taken. In fact, as much as $10 million may have been pilfered by Mashaal and his associates from the estate of Jack Sofaer, who was in life a stock trader and investor.
Whether it was $1 million or $10 million, Mashaal, a founding member of a company that may have as much as a billion in gross assets, seems to have no need to risk committing felony crimes to steal from an old friend.
Of course, Mashaal may be innocent of all wrongdoing – as he claims. He has not been convicted of a crime, nor has he lost yet in the civil lawsuit – a suit he delayed for one year after it was scheduled for trial last November.
Reason to Steal?
It was suggested by one individual who knows Mashaal and who also knew the late Sofaer that the former held a grudge against the latter – for reasons that are unclear – and that he took this opportunity to get vengeance.
Another suggestion is that Mashaal had risen to success by this modus operandi – to never give a sucker an even break.
Though he did not need the money, it was second nature to him, in fact, something of an imperative – to take when others are not looking or when the gullible or trusting come into your path, it is a sign from heaven that you must take them otherwise someone else will do it anyway and you will lose out on an easy pilfer.
There is little doubt that Rhonda Sofaer trusted Albert Mashaal.
Indeed, the daughter of Sofaer was so trusting of the man she considered like an uncle and whom she had known since she was five – that she reposed her entire trust in him and, as noted above, signed some 20 blank checks for him to use to efficiently handle the estate for her.
That may have been too much for the old man to resist.
If he hated the father and the daughter thought he was a kindly uncle because of her childhood associations, what better way to even the score if there was a score to settle?
Other possibilities also emerge: One of these is that Mashaal himself was not quite liquid and needed the ready cash.
It is not unknown for big real estate companies with large property holdings to experience cash flow shortages.
Sharing the Theft
The Sofaer lawsuit alleges that Mashaal not only paid himself but also paid his hand-picked team of lawyer, accountant and bookkeeper for the estate – all of whom he also used, allegedly, in his private business dealings.
It is possible that Mashaal paid his private business expenses by padding expenses through the Sofaer estate – rewarding his professional team with unearned “bonuses” from the estate of Sofaer.
One of the most suspicious alleged crimes is one committed by Mashaal’s attorney, Nicole Benchimol, who also represented the estate.
A longtime attorney for Mashaal, who had offices in the Yale office building, she was brought in at the onset of Mashaal’s tenure as trustee to handle legal work connected to the liquidation of the estate.
In only seven months, Mashaal paid Benchmol a whopping $700,000 in legal fees from the estate, without a single invoice to prove she had done any services.
Anyone who knows anything about settling estates knows this is an extraordinary billing – at $100,000 per month – and with nothing to show for it. Anyone who knows the ethical rules for lawyers in the Province of Quebec knows that a retainer must be signed in advance – and must include the scope of work and billing rates.
None of that was provided – as Benchimol took fees approaching three-quarters of a million for work that might be expected to be billed at under $100,000 [Note that Benchimol never completed the work for settling the estate. In fact, there was never any report or accounting of the money until the courts became involved and removed Mashaal and his team from the handling of the estate].
It gets worse.
While Mashaal was paying his in-house attorney from the estate, Benchimol herself committed an apparent act of fraud that will possibly result in her being disbarred after the conclusion of the lawsuit.
Incredibly, Benchimol used some of the money she got paid from the estate [for work she allegedly did not do] to buy real estate from the estate – a condo in Florida – before the estate was settled and without telling the daughter of Sofaer – a clear ethical violation, if not a criminal act.
That’s right, the lawyer representing the estate bought a condominium from the estate using fees she earned from the estate without submitting a bill to the estate and without informing the principal heir to the estate.
In the end, Benchimol got a free Florida condo out of the deal, in addition to payments way out of proportion for the work she did for the estate.
More Suspicious Activities
The suspicious activities of this team go on and on – with Mashaal handling all the payments of money.
To mention one more – a payment was made for $100,000 to a man living in a nursing home who was not named in the will. The incapacitated man had no claim to any money in the estate. However, he never cashed the check. His daughter did. She too had no claim to any money from the estate.
On top of that, Benchimol, who legally approved these transactions, seems to have been unwilling to disclose the whereabouts of some $5 million of Sofaer’s assets to his daughter, Rhonda, while another man, apparently allied to Mashaal, was handling another $10 million in a stock account that Mashaal liquidated without telling Rhonda.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all is that Benchimol allegedly told Rhonda, when she demanded to know more information about her father’s estate, that she was likely to inherit about $1 million altogether – despite Rhonda being the main beneficiary of the estate and that the estate was estimated to be valued at more than $20 million.
The argument that Mashaal would not stoop to steal a million is rebutted therefore in theory that he may have stolen much more than $1 million and that he might have stolen the entire estate, had Rhonda Sofaer not retained an attorney, after hearing the dumfounding statement by Benchimol that she stood to inherit only $1 million.
Was Mashaal Cash Poor?
Yale Properties Limited was formed in 1953 by Mashaal’s father, Menashi Mashaal, a Jewish immigrant forced to abandon his property and flee from persecution in Iraq in the 1950s. [Sofaer was also an Iraqi Jew who fled Iraq in the 1950s].
Yale was operated by Menashi and his eight children, who each started their own families. Family members now consist of some 95 individuals.
Over time, Yale formed a group of related companies with holdings across North America. Among these are First Real Properties Limited, Second Real Properties Limited, and Fourth Real Properties Limited – which are joint-venture companies owned by Yale Properties Limited and The Standard Life Assurance Company of Canada, an investment solutions company with over $300 billion in client’s money under administration.
In short, Standard Life provided its client’s money, while Mashaal’s company provided know-how.
Between 1968-1981, the two entities partnered to develop Lloyd D. Jackson Square in Hamilton, Ontario – a giant retail, entertainment and commercial office space development.
The Real Group holds a portfolio reportedly containing 3.3 million square feet of office, retail and industrial assets, along with significant development lands. Its first major development with Standard was Jackson Square, hailed as the salvation of downtown Hamilton.
While Albert Mashaal is president of Yale, he is one of reportedly nine founding partners in the original company.
He does not own a majority share of the company.
If the company was not profitable, Mashaal may have only been entitled to his salary and, though he appeared to be wealthy, he may be little more than a figurehead, an aging member of second generation of Mashaals who started the company with their father, as the third generation now runs the company.
Yale is managed by younger Mashaal’s who can outvote Uncle Albert, if they see things differently than him.
A chance to enhance his income by raiding his old friends’ estate might have been too tempting for Mashaal to pass up.
Furthermore, there are indications that Yale Properties Limited is not excelling everywhere. Their signature development, Jackson Square in Hamilton, which was once hailed as the salvation of the city’s downtown corridor, has seen decline and likely serious cash flow problems in recent years.
The company has been plagued by lawsuits in various cities over the use of land. Reportedly, some of their land holdings have sat vacant and fallow, undeveloped for years.
In our next in this series, we will examine some of these lawsuits, the company’s true holdings, and the likely net worth of Albert Mashaal, as this investigation is carried on.
The one question looming is did Albert Mashaal steal from his friend’s estate – and if he did, why?
Stay tuned for Part 4.