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Vatican indicts 10, including cardinal, over $512M London real estate deal – CBC.ca

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A Vatican judge on Saturday indicted 10 people, including a once-powerful cardinal, on charges including embezzlement, abuse of office, extortion and fraud in connection with the Secretariat of State’s 350 million-euro ($512 million Cdn) investment in a London real estate venture.

The president of the Vatican’s criminal tribunal, Giuseppe Pignatone, set July 27 as the trial date, though lawyers for some defendants questioned how they could prepare for trial so soon given they hadn’t yet formally received the indictment.

The 487-page indictment request was issued following a sprawling, two-year investigation into how the Secretariat of State managed its vast asset portfolio, much of which is funded by donations from the faithful. The scandal over its multimillion-dollar losses has resulted in a sharp reduction in donations and prompted Pope Francis to strip the office of its ability to manage the money.

Five former Vatican officials, including Cardinal Angelo Becciu and two officials from the Secretariat of State, were indicted, as well as the Italian businessmen who handled the investment.

Vatican prosecutors accuse the main suspects of bilking millions of euros from the Holy See in fees, bad investments and other losses related to financial dealings that were funded in large part by Peter’s Pence donations to the Pope for works of charity. The suspects have denied wrongdoing.

Extortion accusations

One of the main suspects, Italian broker Gianluigi Torzi, is accused of having extorted the Vatican of 15 million euros to turn over ownership of the London building in late 2018. Torzi had been retained by the Vatican to help it acquire full ownership of the building from another indicted money manager who had handled the initial investment in 2013, but lost millions in what the Vatican says were speculative, imprudent deals.

Vatican prosecutors allege Torzi inserted a last-minute clause into the contract giving him full voting rights in the deal.

The Vatican hierarchy, however, signed off on the contract, with both the Pope’s No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and his deputy approving it. Neither was indicted. In addition, Francis himself was aware of the deal and Torzi’s involvement in it.

Vatican prosecutors say the Vatican hierarchy was hoodwinked by Torzi and aided in part by an Italian lawyer — who was also indicted Saturday — into agreeing to the terms. The Secretariat of State intends to declare itself an injured party in the case.

Torzi has denied the charges and said the accusations were due to a misunderstanding. He is currently in London pending an extradition request by Italian authorities, who are seeking to prosecute him on other financial charges. His representatives said they had no immediate comment Saturday since they hadn’t yet seen the indictment.

Cardinal declares ‘absolute innocence’

Also indicted was a one-time papal contender and Holy See official, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who helped engineer the initial London investment when he was chief of staff in the Secretariat of State.

Francis fired him as the Vatican’s saint-making chief last year, apparently in connection with a separate issue: Becciu’s 100,000-euro donation of Holy See funds to a diocesan charity run by his brother.

Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, left, shown during a consistory ceremony to install 14 new cardinals at the Vatican in 2018, was among those indicted. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Becciu had originally not been part of the London investigation but was included after it appeared that he was behind the proposal to buy the building, prosecutors say, alleging that he also interfered in the investigation.

In a statement Saturday issued by his lawyers, Becciu insisted on the “absolute falsity” of the accusations and denounced what he said was “unparalleled media pillory” against him in the Italian press.

“I am the victim of a plot hatched against me. And I have been waiting for a long time to know any accusations against me, to allow myself to promptly deny them and prove to the world my absolute innocence,” he said.

Embezzlement charges

One of Becciu’s proteges, self-styled intelligence analyst Cecilia Marogna, was indicted on separate embezzlement charges. Becciu had hired Marogna as an external consultant after she reached out to him in 2015 with concerns about security at Vatican embassies in global hot spots. Becciu authorized hundreds of thousands of euros of Holy See funds to her to free Catholic priests and nuns held hostage in Africa, according to WhatsApp messages reprinted by Italian media.

Her Slovenian-based holding company, which received the funds, was among the four companies also ordered to stand trial.

Marogna says the money was compensation for legitimate intelligence work and reimbursements. Prosecutors say she spent the money on luxury purchases that were incompatible with the humanitarian scope of her company.

In a statement Saturday, her legal team said Marogna had been prepared for months to “provide a full accounting of her work and fears nothing about the accusations made against her.”

Alleged abuse of office

Also indicted were the former top two officials in the Vatican’s financial watchdog agency, for alleged abuse of office. Prosecutors say by failing to stop the Torzi deal, they performed a “decisive function” in letting it play out.

The lawyer for the former office director, Tommaso di Ruzza, said he had only seen the Vatican press statement about the allegations but insisted that his client “has always acted in the most scrupulous respect of the law and his office duties, in the exclusive interest of the Holy See.”

The former head of the office, René Bruelhart, defended his work and said his indictment was a “procedural blunder that will be immediately clarified by the organs of Vatican justice as soon as the defence will be able to exercise its rights.”

A former Secretary of State official, Monsignor Mauro Carlino, expressed shock at his indictment on alleged extortion and abuse of office charges, saying his only involvement in the deal was after he was ordered by his superiors to negotiate Torzi down from a 20 million-euro fee to 15 million euros.

“It seems incomprehensible that a worthy act … that brought him no personal advantage and had on the contrary provided a significant savings for the Secretariat of State, could lead to an indictment,” said a statement from his lawyer, Salvino Mondello.

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Boutique Ottawa real estate firms find freedom in doing business their own way – Ottawa Business Journal

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After more than a decade in commercial real estate, John Zinati had settled into a comfortable career as a leasing manager at a well-known locally owned Ottawa firm and could have simply counted down the days until retirement.

Instead, he chose a different path. In 2016, he launched Zinati Realty, a boutique brokerage that serves mainly owners and landlords in the office, retail and industrial sectors. 

Since then, Zinati has brought on two more brokers and is looking to expand his team further as the industry slowly works its way toward a post-pandemic future. Looking back on his decision to leave the security of an established firm for the uncertainty of life as an entrepreneur, he has no regrets.

“I was just faced with too many limitations, so I made the decision to go out on my own,” Zinati explains. 

“Being nimble and quick and working closely with these owners to get their spaces filled or get their buildings sold is really rewarding.”

Zinati is one of a growing number of local real estate executives who’ve left comfortable, secure jobs at established big-name companies to start their own brokerages and advisory firms.

Many of these owner-brokers point to the freedom of being able to make their own decisions and do their own deals without having to answer to corporate bosses as a major factor in making the leap.

“I think commercial real estate brokerage in the boutique setting is one of the last few places where you can just earn more with a little bit more elbow grease,” says Darren Fleming, the CEO of Real Strategy Advisors. “There’s so much upside.”

Before launching his own firm, Fleming spent seven years as managing director of Cresa’s Ottawa office. His lengthy real estate resume also includes four years as a sales representative at Colliers International and a one-year stint as a leasing agent with Montreal-based developer Canderel. 

In 2016, Fleming sold his shares in Cresa, left the company and enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. 

The following year, he launched Real Strategy Advisors, which provides advisory and brokerage services to office tenants in the tech, professional services and not-for-profit sectors.

He’s never looked back. Too often, Fleming says, strict corporate policies at bigger firms put entrepreneurial-minded brokers in a straightjacket. He points to an example from early in his career, when an employer told him he was storing too much sales data on a company server. 

“I think I’m addicted to being an entrepreneur and being my own boss,” Fleming says. “Are there days when you wish someone would sign off on payroll other than you? Yeah, but it’s worth it in the end.”

KOBLE thriving

Graeme Webster is a partner at Ottawa’s KOBLE Commercial Real Estate, a firm that brokers mainly off-market and unlisted office and industrial transactions for buyers such as entrepreneurs and well-heeled professionals looking to build up their investment portfolios.

He and fellow partner Marc Morin founded KOBLE seven and a half years ago after cutting their teeth for more than a decade at large, well-established firms. Webster says he thrives on the feeling of satisfaction he gets from navigating clients through deals that can set them up for retirement or attain assets that can be passed on to future generations. 

“Our focus is to help people establish that family legacy,” he says. “Real estate is really just the tool to allow them to do that.”

Now at six employees, KOBLE recently brought Ottawa commercial real estate veteran Richard Getz on board as a senior adviser. The firm is also looking to hire someone to oversee its business operations as it continues to expand.

Webster says that despite the overall uncertainty facing the industry at the moment, KOBLE is thriving. The firm has more deals in its pipeline than at any other time in its history, a development he attributes largely to the city’s reputation for being a safe haven in times of economic turmoil.

“It’s a place where when there’s volatility, people want to jump in (the market),” he explains.

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Boutique Ottawa real estate firms find freedom in doing business their own way – Ottawa Business Journal

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After more than a decade in commercial real estate, John Zinati had settled into a comfortable career as a leasing manager at a well-known locally owned Ottawa firm and could have simply counted down the days until retirement.

Instead, he chose a different path. In 2016, he launched Zinati Realty, a boutique brokerage that serves mainly owners and landlords in the office, retail and industrial sectors. 

Since then, Zinati has brought on two more brokers and is looking to expand his team further as the industry slowly works its way toward a post-pandemic future. Looking back on his decision to leave the security of an established firm for the uncertainty of life as an entrepreneur, he has no regrets.

“I was just faced with too many limitations, so I made the decision to go out on my own,” Zinati explains. 

“Being nimble and quick and working closely with these owners to get their spaces filled or get their buildings sold is really rewarding.”

Zinati is one of a growing number of local real estate executives who’ve left comfortable, secure jobs at established big-name companies to start their own brokerages and advisory firms.

Many of these owner-brokers point to the freedom of being able to make their own decisions and do their own deals without having to answer to corporate bosses as a major factor in making the leap.

“I think commercial real estate brokerage in the boutique setting is one of the last few places where you can just earn more with a little bit more elbow grease,” says Darren Fleming, the CEO of Real Strategy Advisors. “There’s so much upside.”

Before launching his own firm, Fleming spent seven years as managing director of Cresa’s Ottawa office. His lengthy real estate resume also includes four years as a sales representative at Colliers International and a one-year stint as a leasing agent with Montreal-based developer Canderel. 

In 2016, Fleming sold his shares in Cresa, left the company and enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. 

The following year, he launched Real Strategy Advisors, which provides advisory and brokerage services to office tenants in the tech, professional services and not-for-profit sectors.

He’s never looked back. Too often, Fleming says, strict corporate policies at bigger firms put entrepreneurial-minded brokers in a straightjacket. He points to an example from early in his career, when an employer told him he was storing too much sales data on a company server. 

“I think I’m addicted to being an entrepreneur and being my own boss,” Fleming says. “Are there days when you wish someone would sign off on payroll other than you? Yeah, but it’s worth it in the end.”

KOBLE thriving

Graeme Webster is a partner at Ottawa’s KOBLE Commercial Real Estate, a firm that brokers mainly off-market and unlisted office and industrial transactions for buyers such as entrepreneurs and well-heeled professionals looking to build up their investment portfolios.

He and fellow partner Marc Morin founded KOBLE seven and a half years ago after cutting their teeth for more than a decade at large, well-established firms. Webster says he thrives on the feeling of satisfaction he gets from navigating clients through deals that can set them up for retirement or attain assets that can be passed on to future generations. 

“Our focus is to help people establish that family legacy,” he says. “Real estate is really just the tool to allow them to do that.”

Now at six employees, KOBLE recently brought Ottawa commercial real estate veteran Richard Getz on board as a senior adviser. The firm is also looking to hire someone to oversee its business operations as it continues to expand.

Webster says that despite the overall uncertainty facing the industry at the moment, KOBLE is thriving. The firm has more deals in its pipeline than at any other time in its history, a development he attributes largely to the city’s reputation for being a safe haven in times of economic turmoil.

“It’s a place where when there’s volatility, people want to jump in (the market),” he explains.

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City incentives, 'red-hot' real estate market fuel action on brownfields – Windsor Star

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A city program created in 2010 to entice investors to build on contaminated old industrial sites has been blazingly successful in the last 18 months.

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In its first six years, uptake on the Brownfield Redevelopment Community Improvement Plan was tepid — just four approvals for grants to help investigate possible contamination and tax breaks to compensate for the considerable costs of cleanup. Things sped up in the next four years with 23 approvals. And since January 2020, interest has kicked into high gear with 15 approvals. The increased interest has been driven by the attractiveness of the incentives and the red-hot demand for housing, says Greg Atkinson, a senior City of Windsor planner who has administered the program since its inception.

“When I put the numbers together I was quite impressed,” he said Wednesday, referring to a recent report on the program’s success and suggested tweaks. Normally, such a review happens after five years but there wasn’t enough data available due to the low initial uptake.

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“We’ve got that now,” said Atkinson, referring to the 42 total approvals — most of which happened in the last few years — to spur new projects on these usually vacant properties contaminated by years of use as factories, dry cleaners, fuel depots, landfills and gas stations.

City council has so far approved $13.2 million in incentives to drive redevelopment of derelict old properties. The result is private sector investment to the tune of $182.7 million and a rise in the assessed value of the properties totaling $216.2 million.

“Just doing quick math, it’s close to $14 in private investment for every public dollar in incentives,” Atkinson said. “So value for money, this community improvement plan (one of several created by the city in recent years) is really performing well.”

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Greg Atkinson, a City of Windsor senior planner, stands by a vacant brownfield site on Riverside Drive in April 2016. Since January 2020 there have been 15 applications to the Brownfield Redevelopment Community Improvement Plan.
Greg Atkinson, a City of Windsor senior planner, stands by a vacant brownfield site on Riverside Drive in April 2016. Since January 2020 there have been 15 applications to the Brownfield Redevelopment Community Improvement Plan. Photo by Tyler Brownbridge /Windsor Star

A study conducted in 2009 identified 137 brownfield properties on 559 acres that had sat unused for many years. “Historically, there has been little interest in redeveloping brownfield sites due to the uncertainty surrounding the extent of contamination and the potential cost of cleanup,” Atkinson’s report said.

Mayor Drew Dilkens said the CIP was designed to change that.

“With the combination of the program and a hot real estate market, we’re seeing a lot of action,” he said, explaining that developers are looking everywhere — including these brownfields — for places to build.

“Having this program … is really instrumental in seeing some of the more difficult land activated in an improved way.”

The first application was approved back in 2012, for redevelopment of a long-abandoned gas station at Dougall Avenue and West Grand Boulevard. Andre and Hoda Abouasli used the grants available to help clean up contamination before building an attractive commercial building. The project served as a visible example of what the CIP can do to transform eyesores throughout the city, Atkinson said.

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The projects since have ranged from modest to major. The biggest by far was for up to $12.5 million in incentives to help with the cleanup of the former GM Trim plant on Lauzon Road so that Farhi Holdings could proceed with a massive $250-million residential development that’s one of the biggest in the city’s history. A cleanup costing $6.5 million to remove contaminated soil and remove the footings and concrete from the former building cleared the way for the project, which is well underway.

Other big projects approved recently approved include: $3 million in incentives for the 123-unit Graffiti residential/commercial project at 1200 University Avenue West; $457,700 for an 81-unit apartment project on Argyle Road, formerly the site of a pharmaceutical plant destroyed in a 2018 fire; and $579,185 for a project to build a 24-unit residential building at 840 Wyandotte St. E., formerly a commercial building destroyed in a 2016 fire.

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And in June, a committee of council endorsed a CIP application to help with the $81,600 cleanup of an 11-acre former industrial site bounded by Walker Road, Edna Street, St. Luke Road and Richmond Street. The owner, the Sood family, has a plan to build three five-storey towers with 62 units each, plus 90 two-storey townhouses. It’s a development that Atkinson believes will help link up Walkerville and Ford City, which for decades have been separated by industrial wasteland.

The CIP provides grants for 50 per cent of the cost of studies to see how feasible it is to redevelop a brownfield and study what it would cost to clean it up. Those are cheques the city writes in the range of $7,500 to $25,000. The CIP can also reduce development charges by 60 per cent. But the biggest incentives by far are the Brownfields Property Tax Assistance and Brownfield Rehabilitation Grant
programs, which provide annual grants to offset either 70 or 100 per cent of the tax increases that occur after a brownfield site is redeveloped into something more valuable, like an apartment building. The grants are paid out for 10 or 13 years and can end up saving developers many thousands of dollars — after the projects are built.

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  1. Developer Anuj Sood talks about progress made to rental units on Walker Road in Walkerville, on Wednesday, June 16, 2021.

    As Walker Road townhouses near completion, Soods plan transformation of industrial wasteland

  2. Farhi Holding Corporation drawing for 1600 Lauzon Road.

    ‘Massive’ 543-home project starts this fall at former GM Trim site

“The whole premise is the city is not collecting a lot of tax revenue, in some cases almost nothing, from these properties that are negatively impacting their neighbourhoods,” said Atkinson. “So forgoing some of that tax revenue, over a 10-year grant period, is a low price to pay for a redevelopment where you might get 50 dwelling units where you had vacant land before.”

If all 42 of the approvals proceed, the result will be 962 new dwelling units on 119.2 acres of brownfields. Based on a metric from a 2003 national round table, that would prevent 512 acres of greenfield from being developed, according to Atkinson’s report. In addition, the spinoff effect of $182.7 million in private investment is $694 million invested into the economy.

bcross@postmedia.com

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