Former Lethbridge pastor’s assets frozen as $500-million lawsuit moves forward

Former Lethbridge pastor’s assets frozen as $500-million lawsuit moves forward by Jason van Rassel, September 2, 2013, The Calgary Herald
A judge has frozen the assets of a former Lethbridge pastor at the centre of a $500-million class-action lawsuit over beleaguered real estate ventures. The class-action suit was filed in April against Ron Aitkens, founder of the Harvest Group of Companies, which raised money for 16 ventures in real estate development, resource development and financial investment.  However, the suit claims none of the projects were viable, and that $500 million intended to bring the developments to fruition has instead gone to Ron Aitkens, his wife Lucille and seven other Harvest Group principals named as defendants. The freezing order granted by Queen’s Bench Justice Alan Macleod on Aug. 23 prevents Ron and Lucille Aitkens from selling any property or accessing bank accounts or credit beyond a $10,000 allowance for “reasonable living expenses” while the complex lawsuit makes its way through the courts. “We’re very pleased to be able to get this order because we don’t have a good sense at this point of what Mr. Aitkens has,” said Calgary lawyer Blair Yorke-Slader. who represents the plaintiffs. But the order also requires Ron and Lucille Aitkens to provide the plaintiffs with a full accounting of the size and location of their assets within 15 days. “We’ll get that sense very soon,” Yorke-Slader said.

Aitkens’ lawyer couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on the lawsuit or its allegations, which haven’t been proven in court. The suit said Harvest raised money with a network of agents who sold shares and bonds in its ventures, often through word of mouth and free seminars. The projects Harvest raised money for include an office complex in downtown Calgary, residential developments in southwest Calgary, Airdrie and Rocky View County and an industrial park in Millet, south of Edmonton. The suit alleges little, if any development has taken place in any of the locations, despite Harvest raising millions in capital. Eleven plaintiffs have stepped forward to represent approximately 5,000 people thought to have invested with the Harvest Group and its affiliated ventures. The lawsuit must be certified by a judge before it can proceed. If the suit is certified, the value of the defendants’ assets could have a bearing on any potential settlement. “A lot of these investors lost all their retirement savings, took out lines of credit and they deserve something back,” said Ernie Callow, who chairs a committee of nine investors spearheading the lawsuit. The Harvest Group and its related companies are currently going through court-supervised restructuring after filing for protection from creditors in June 2012. At that time, Aitkens swore an affidavit saying many of the companies’ real estate ventures remained heavily mortgaged — though he added five were in an equity position.

Callow, 63, said he and his wife Shirley invested more than $35,000 with the Harvest Group, but said he’s realistic about the chances of getting it all back. “To say there’s 100 per cent return at this point would be foolish,” he said. Yet Callow has also spent an additional $6,500 of his own money — much of it travelling from his home near North Battleford, Sask., to meet with other investors — to pursue the lawsuit. “Why am I doing it? Because of the people. It’s the principle,” he said. Callow also praised the 11 plaintiffs who stepped forward to represent investors, saying they’re also taking a financial risk. Each plaintiff signed an undertaking agreeing to pay any damages to Ron and Lucille Aitkins if the court rules the freezing order created any undue hardship to them. “Those 11 people deserve a lot of credit,” Callow said. [Emphasis added]

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