Long-standing offshore ties of the Liberal Party moneyman and his famous family provide jarring contrast to Canadian prime minister’s campaign for tax fairness.
As a candidate and as Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau has made economic and tax fairness a centerpiece of his political message. “We can afford to do more for the people who need it by doing less for the people who don’t,” he said while running for office.
Trudeau had begun his campaign for a new kind of Canadian politics by turning to a close friend to help raise funds for it: Stephen R. Bronfman.
A financier and scion of one Canada’s most famous families, Bronfman quickly transformed Trudeau’s Liberal Party from moribund political pauper to financial juggernaut, nearly doubling donations in two years. As a thank-you gesture, he sent thousands of donor pairs of mittens in Liberal Party-red.
“Justin is very, very salable,” Bronfman, 53, once observed to reporters. “He’s got a great name, and people want to find out who he is.”
As the Liberal Party’s chief fundraiser, Bronfman took on a mantle long worn by his godfather, Leo Kolber, the jokingly self-proclaimed “consigliere” of the Bronfman family and longtime pillar of the Liberal Party establishment. Kolber ran many of the Bronfmans’ businesses for decades, becoming wealthy himself in the process.
But while Trudeau’s tax-the-rich message resonates with admirers around the world, a trove of secret documents suggest that Bronfman’s private-investment company, Claridge, for a quarter of a century quietly helped move millions of dollars offshore to Kolber family entities that may have avoided taxes in Canada, the United States and Israel, via a family trust, shell companies and accounting moves questioned by experts.
Some of those moves may have run afoul of the rules, according to tax experts, and came as lawyers representing Bronfman, Kolber and other clients with offshore interests were credited with leading a lobbying campaign that successfully staved off a crackdown on offshore trusts long sought by Canadian tax officials.
A lawyer representing the Bronfmans and Kolbers told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that “none of the transactions or entities at issue were effected or established to evade or even avoid taxation” and that they “were always in full conformity with all applicable laws and requirements.”
Any “suggestion of false documentation, fraud, ‘disguised’ conduct, tax evasion or similar conduct is false, and a distortion of the facts,” he said.
A spokesman for Trudeau declined to comment.
The revelations are found in internal files of the Bermuda-based offshore law firm Appleby that were leaked to Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with ICIJ, the CBC, Radio-Canada, the Toronto Star, and more than 90 other media organizations in 67 countries. Many of the documents pertaining to the Bronfman loans to Kolber trusts belonged to a trust company in the Cayman Islands called Ansbacher that Appleby acquired in 2006.
Taken together, the documents offer a glimpse of how powerful interests work to protect the offshore financial system for their own benefit.
Power players in Canada
Stephen Bronfman is a grandson of legendary patriarch Samuel Bronfman, a Russian immigrant who built a Canadian business selling liquor that found its way into the United States during Prohibition and turned it into the multibillion-dollar Seagram’s fortune, which was inherited by his sons, Edgar and Charles, when he died in 1971. The Bronfman family bought or built real estate giant Cadillac Fairview Corp., Hollywood’s Universal Studios and Manhattan’s landmark Seagram Building, along with large stakes in MGM and DuPont. Charles Bronfman is Stephen’s father.
The Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation, established in the 1950s, was one of Canada’s largest philanthropies, and the family name appears on buildings at McGill University in Montreal and a wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. A family biographer wrote in 2016 that “by virtue of their enormous wealth, the Bronfman family were equivalent to Canadian royalty.”
Stephen Bronfman, a rock-music-loving baseball fan, wanted to be a pro skier as a young man rather than a businessman. Ultimately, he inherited control of the family investment firm, Claridge Inc., from his father and ran investments in real estate, restaurants and entertainment businesses. Carrying on the family tradition, he is a major philanthropist who has donated millions of dollars to Jewish, educational and environmental charities. After he raised nearly $2 million for Trudeau’s successful run for Liberal Party leader in 2013, Trudeau picked him to be the party’s chief fundraiser for the victorious federal campaign in 2015.