The real-estate development company SJ71 is nestled amongst a non-descript strip mall in Ajax, Ont., an hour east of Toronto. A sign carrying the slogan “You dream it we build it!” is affixed above the front doors.
Founded in 2013 by Md. Tarekh Rana, an Indian businessman, the company has become curiously entwined with the city and hosted the launch of Mayor Shaun Collier’s campaign in the lead-up to the 2018 Ajax municipal elections.
“Rana, our host, my friend — from SJ71 Limited — thank you very much for hosting today,” Collier said in the foyer of the G Centre in April 2018.
“Rana is one of those people that just does. He doesn’t seek any accolades. He doesn’t look for any attention.”
But now, as Rana’s business appears to be in disarray, a Global News investigation has revealed similarities between the developer and an international fugitive accused of leading a criminal organization in Bangladesh.
The investigation also revealed how Rana aligned himself with city council in Ajax, even making a sitting councillor a director of his company.
Former and current employees of SJ71 who spoke with Global News described the company as constantly under intense financial pressure from creditors over the last year.
The employees were granted anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“I think he’s the worst person I’ve ever worked for,” said one former employee. They described contractors calling “every single day” at the G Centre asking for money owed to them.
“We had letters coming through at our head office that he wasn’t paying rent,” they said. “And he kept telling us that, no, no, no, he’s taking care of it.”
Wait, There’s More: Global News investigation — a businessman or a fugitive?
The Ajax developer has said he plans to return to Canada, but is believed to be out of the country amid mounting questions about his identity. The company has been evicted from at least one of its properties over claims of just over $21,000 in unpaid rent.
The employees described being bombarded with threatening emails from creditors or contractors who claimed they weren’t paid. The first sign of trouble appeared in December 2018, when Rana told staff to hold off on cashing their cheques or they would bounce, the former employees who spoke to Global News claim.
Rana declined to be interviewed by Global News about SJ71 and its financial status.
In an email response, Rana stated that due to Global’s investigation, for the first “time in my six years business in Canada I owe my trades money.”
“Since it is tough for me to secure loan from lenders due to your kind investigation. I will be back by end of November.”
A note posted to the front doors of its offices at 15 Harwood Ave. from the law offices of Torkin Manes and addressed to Rana, dated Oct. 17, 2019, lists $21,470 in alleged rental arrears. The same building is listed on the SJ71 website as being “sold.”
“Notice is hereby given to the Tenant that the Lease has been terminated and the Leased Premises have been re-entered by the Landlord,” the note read.
According to corporate records, the building is owned by Twinrough Real Estate Ltd.
Global News attempted to reach the company through Torkin Manes but was not successful.
His company’s website lists a “portfolio of multi-use commercial/residential properties and businesses that are enhancing the urban fabric and diversity of Durham Region.” Some were promoted by the town for their apparent success.
An article published on the Town of Ajax website in May 2019, described Rana as “the visionary” behind The G Centre, “a state-of-the-art co-working space” in the city. The article was removed in late November 2019.
The G Centre is now operated by CPPI property management who have been tasked with keeping the centre running — by the building’s owner, Michael Poon, a private mortgage broker — over claims of unpaid bills.
CPPI said it is not sure where Rana is or if he will be returning to Canada.
Arriving in Canada
Rana said he arrived in Canada in 2011 on a one-year visitor’s visa before obtaining a 10-year-visitor’s visa. He quickly began to ingratiate himself into the Durham community, sponsoring community events and winning accolades along the way.
Ontario corporate records show that SJ71 Ltd. was registered with the provincial government on Feb. 21, 2013. He bought a home in Pickering, Ont. the following year for $780,000 and took out two loans against the property totalling $1,169,000 as of June 2019.
The company has had a rotating board of directors since being launched, according to interviews with Global News and corporate records. At least three other Ontario residents have served as a director.
This is an important fact, as Ontario companies must have at least one director who is a resident of Canada. As a visitor, Rana doesn’t qualify.
An investigation by Global News has found that before Rana arrived in Canada, a man matching his profile was accused in India of heading a criminal organization wanted for crimes including extortion and murder.
The suspect, who police said went by the alias Md. Tarek Rana, was arrested in Kolkata in 2007 after the co-accused said he was “the leader of the Seven Star Militant Outfit” and living in India under a false identity.
Police and court records obtained by Global News allege the suspect’s real name was Khandekar Tanvirul Islam, and he went by the nickname “Joy.” A wanted notice on the Interpol website lists him as on the most wanted list of the Bangladesh Police for crimes including murder.
India court documents include a passport, driver’s licence, financial statements, business records, insurance records and tax returns under the name Md. Tarekh Rana.
Rana has repeatedly denied ever having been arrested in India, or anywhere else, and denied he was Bangladeshi. He acknowledged he looked like Khandekar, but he and his immigration lawyer claimed he had been cleared by the RCMP, partly through fingerprinting.
“I’m not this guy,” Rana told Global News, adding that he was victim of identity theft.
Christie McLardie, a spokesperson for the Town of Ajax, said the city is taking the allegations against Rana “very seriously and monitoring the situation.”
Rana became a big campaign contributor to many candidates in the 2018 Ajax election race and was early supporter of Mayor Collier, who has sat on council since 2003.
“He was & is the right candidate to make Ajax the most progressive Town of North American & you are witnessing it,” Rana said in an email.
During the election, Rana donated $1,200 to Collier’s campaign, and SJ71 employees contributed another $2,000, according to election records. Three of Rana’s business partners also donated $3,600.
The political contributions drew the attention of auditors who discovered Rana had donated a total of $5,400 to the campaigns of the mayor and would-be councillors — exceeding the allowable limit by $400. The donations from employees and business partners were not part of the audit.
At a June 6 city meeting, Rana told the committee he was “not aware of the $5,000 contribution limit to multiple candidates and apologized for his apparent contravention of the limit,” according to town records.
The committee passed a motion recommending that he not be charged with violating the campaign financing provisions of the Municipal Elections Act, the minutes of the meeting show.
Collier told Global News that while he considered Rana a “friend,” he was unaware SJ71 had been evicted from at least one if its buildings over claims of unpaid rent.
The mayor said that he was “surprised” by allegations Rana appeared to match an international fugitive.
“That’s not something we even look into. He’s contributed to a lot of local things … he’s facilitated a lot of programs here in town.”
Rana also gave $1,200 to the campaign of Ashmeed Khan, who went on to win a seat on the Ajax town council and represent Ward 2 — home to some of SJ71’s business interests.
Corporate records show that eight months after the election, Khan was appointed a director of Rana’s company in June 2019. Khan did not answer several questions from Global News about whether he disclosed this on the city’s registry used by councillors to declare when they have financial or pecuniary interest.
He also did not answer questions about whether he received compensation as a director or had a pecuniary interest in the company.
“If a member has a pecuniary interest in a matter that is being considered by Council at a meeting, it is the responsibility of the member of Council to declare the conflict and abstain from participating in any discussion and voting on the matter.”
In an emailed statement from the city, Khan said: “Currently, I have no business affiliation with Mr. Rana or SJ71. As Mr. Rana is a private individual, I have no further comment.”
When shown a copy of SJ71’s corporate registry listing Khan’s as a director, a follow up statement said: “I resigned. Profile has not been updated yet.”
Speaking with Global News at a public event in Ajax Tuesday night, Khan said he “denied totally” any business relationship with Rana or the company SJ71.
“He’s just a business owner in Ajax,” Khan said. “I haven’t seen him in months, I haven’t done anything with him in months.”
“I don’t think he is a big developer here … I just did some brief stuff with him.”
Mayor Collier said he was unaware of Khan’s relationship with SJ71 until he received questions from Global News.
“If there was a pecuniary interest he would be required to disclose it,” Collier said. “I wasn’t familiar with Councillor Khan’s involvement. I just found out about it.”
Rana claimed Khan had voluntarily become a director “until I get my permanent residency,” at which point he will no longer need a board member with immigration status in Canada.
He said that all building permits for his companies were done legally and properly.
An MD Tarekh Rana also made political contributions at both the federal and municipal levels. He gave $1,500 to the federal NDP and $356 donation in July 2018 to the Brampton North Federal Liberal Association, according to election records, despite rules indicating only Canadian citizens or permanent residents are eligible to contribute. Rana told Global News he is here on a work permit.
“If the contributor makes this contribution erroneously, it is the contributor who has broken the law,” said Nina Amrov, an NDP spokesperson.
Records also show a $357 donation to the Ontario Liberal Party – Ajax from a Tarekh Rana. Ontario political donors must be “normally resident” in the province.
Photos of Rana posted on Facebook show him alongside Liberal MP Mark Holland, then-Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and former Conservative Leader and current mayor of Brampton, Patrick Brown.
The RCMP, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Canada Border Services Agency and Durham Regional Police all declined to comment, citing privacy restrictions.
“Me and my team worked very hard with the assistance of Town of Ajax as well Whitby Economical Development to bring many businesses to Durham region but you & your team will never take that in consideration,” he said.