The Fall of the House of Evans
Jay and Robert Peers defrauded investors out of $80 million, scarring their family's 100-year-old legacy
Alberta Venture, May 2016
“And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.”
– From “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Edgar Allan Poe
At the end of Sylvancroft Lane in Edmonton’s Glenora neighbourhood, an abandoned mansion that once belonged to the city’s mayor is being prepped for demolition. It was built in 1911 by Harry Marshall Erskine Evans, a prospector and businessman who, before his one-year mayoral term in 1917, founded and managed coal mines as the railway arrived in the West.
Soon after building Sylvancroft, Evans founded the H.M.E. Evans Company, which dealt in bonds, insurance and real estate. He was a member of the Rotary Club, the Anglican Church and the Conservative Party. During the First World War, he let immigrants stay at Sylvancroft for weeks, even months, at a time. He founded the company town of Evansburg, and a neighbourhood in Edmonton still honours the family name.
The home and the business both survived for more than a century, until, to everyone’s astonishment, H.M.E. Evans and its related companies went bankrupt in 2010 and the Sylvancroft mansion hit the market.
At the centre of the bankruptcy was Evans’s grandson, Jeremy (Jay) Peers, and Jay’s son Robert, who were charged with defrauding investors of almost $80 million, and who became the public faces of one of Alberta’s most complex and destructive cases of securities fraud.
After millions of dollars disappeared, the investors demanded to know, first of all, where their money went. Then they asked themselves in bewilderment: Who is the real Jay Peers?
The patriarch of the family’s current iteration was a handsome football player at the University of Alberta, from which he earned an MBA in 1969 (he would go on to teach in the university’s business school). He became secretary treasurer of H.M.E. Evans, the only family member to join the business. It was a natural fit; he trafficked in the affectionate business relationships his grandfather had built. He was slick.
Keith Spencer says Jay was his best friend. Spencer married Jay’s sister, and they played football together. They were so close that Spencer and his wife, Beverley, both gave every last penny of their inheritances to Jay for “safe keeping.” If they wanted to buy a car, they went to Jay for their money. “We never actually thought of ourselves as investors,” Spencer says. “We were ‘storing’ our money.”
By the early 2000s, Jay was actively soliciting investors for his companies Federal Mortgage Corporation and Peers Foster Kristiansen. Through FMC, investors bought into mortgages; PFK was an investment company funding a host of ventures. Spencer realized his money was trading hands but had no objections. Still, Jay made a point to tell him where it went, and said he’d picked the most-secure investment streams. “We were invested with Jay, so PFK and that other stuff was more or less Greek to us,” Spencer says. All told, they trusted Jay with $600,000.
On the advice of an acquaintance who’d once worked with Jay, Peter Stack, a Calgary real estate executive, first invested in FMC in 2003 when he was looking for a safe place to invest for his retirement. “[He] mentioned Jay Peers and said, ‘You know, they’ve got a company that’s been in business for 100 years and they’ve never missed a beat,’” says Stack. “I met with Jay – a smooth talker, well educated. The history of the company seemed to speak for itself. Everything about it seemed to be a low-risk investment opportunity.” The Edmonton Journal reported that Stack and his wife, Monica, invested $654,000. Stack says the real value was “well in excess” of that.
For years, Jay’s investors saw returns. But by 2010, there were cracks in the edifice. Jay had been preparing financial statements in-house to cut overhead and, at first, few people noticed. Spencer says that for two or three years, the statements hadn’t been audited. “I don’t think any of us ever clued in to the fact that maybe there’s a reason why there are no audited financial statements,” Spencer says. But then investors in FMC raised concerns about the businesses they were funding. At an investors’ meeting in 2009, Stack listened to Jay give a presentation about a company called TitanWall. He stood up and said, “Jay, what does this have to do with me? Our money is in mortgages – is that not correct?”
“Absolutely it’s in mortgages,” Jay told him.
That was partly true. But a lot of money was also flowing into PFK’s coffers, or would have been had PFK and FMC not been sharing a corporate bank account. It was later revealed that they were run by the same management team, too, and the businesses raking in money from Jay’s investors were not arms-length companies – they were owned by other members of the Peers family. TitanWall was owned by Jay’s other son, Marc; in the end, it received $3.3 million. Metaform Ventures, which got $13.7 million, was part-owned by Robert. These firms, both selling building technology, were doing business in places like Cuba and Botswana, and Jay’s investors believed they were hemorrhaging money.
This wasn’t long after Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty to running the biggest fraudulent scheme in U.S. history and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. Stack got spooked. He called Jay and said he needed to know more about where his money was going. “One thing led to another and he started to do a bit of a two-step,” says Stack. “And things started to unravel from there.”
On December 9, 2010, FMC and PFK filed for bankruptcy. The venerable H.M.E. Evans Company, which had survived for almost a century, through the Great Depression, two world wars and the usual challenges of any business, went into liquidation.
In January 2011, more than 400 investors took to Edmonton’s Mayfield Inn for a meeting held by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the bankruptcy trustee. Jay offered little of substance, telling FMC investors that the “immediate needs of other business ventures” required him to move the investments out of mortgages. Two days later, Robert and Charity Mewburn, a Victoria couple who’d invested more than $3.1 million in FMC, filed a class-action lawsuit. “The Peers family scheme was a fraudulent scheme devised by Robert, Marc and Jay Peers which has caused FMC investors and PFK investors to lose all, or substantially all, of their investments,” read the statement of claim. Spencer considered joining the suit against his lifelong friend, but the choice was made for him: he couldn’t afford to since he was broke.
In July 2012, the ASC charged Jay and Robert with 34 counts of securities fraud. When the dust settled, the Peers network of family-owned businesses emerged. In court documents, a graph shows the inner workings: the names Marc, Robert and Jay sit at the top of the page, and arrows show ownership in companies like Metaform (controlled by the Tower Farm holding company, itself owned 50/50 by Robert and Jay) and TitanWall (part-owned by Marc). From there, arrows fly in all directions, to the point where it’s almost impossible to tell who owns what in 18 separate companies. But the chart makes it clear that they all trace back to Marc, Robert and Jay.
Many investors said Jay was a creative investor. Spencer says he and many others knew Jay was making “unconventional” investments, but it didn’t bother them. They all thought they were profiting from his creativity. It was “one of the things that attracted a lot of investors,” he says. Sadly and ironically, that creative licence would be the very rope he’d hang them with.
The story that gradually emerged was that, by the time Jay took over H.M.E. Evans, the family fortune was no longer a fortune. There was the company and its investors, and there was Sylvancroft. Jay struggled with the role of his sons’ business ventures in this legacy. Spencer says Jay felt “he was close to pulling off something significant.” He saw their ventures in places like Haiti, Venezuela and Panama as almost altruistic, the kind of work Harry Evans himself would approve of. “There was that strong, Christian generosity underlying the family, and I think Jay felt part of that responsibility to help people,” Spencer says. But in retrospect, he says, the damage should have been obvious; Marc and Robert had no experience in business, finance or development. And while there are several theories floating around about where the investors’ money went, most gravitate to one in particular – that the Peers children blew it.
Some people, like the Mewburns, lost millions. Some, like Stack and Spencer, lost money intended for inheritances or retirement. One investor, Marino Vardabasso, committed suicide after losing his investment. Dr. Joel Wilbush, the late philanthropist and founder of the Wilbush Ethnic Medicine Library, invested $2.4 million, the return on which he’d earmarked for charities. All of it disappeared. Another investor, Rick Friedenberg, lost just as much. He’d been retired, but had to return to work. He says he’d always hoped to leave his kids with a better life than his; now, he fears he’s sent them backwards.
Assets owned by PFK, FMC and H.M.E. Evans have been almost impossible to recapitalize. Some of the homes they owned needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs, or they sold for millions less than their outstanding mortgages. According to PwC, FMC had $46.4 million of liabilities when it went bankrupt, but just $12 million in assets. PFK, with similar liabilities, had assets of less than $3 million. Anything recovered went to the secured creditors.
Last February, Jay pleaded guilty to 11 counts of breaching securities laws, and Robert to one count. Robert awaits sentencing, although he’s still running PFK and he’s a financial consultant at C2 Business Services in Calgary. In a bio online, he claims to have a “strong passion for every aspect of financial management.” He writes for a blog called You and Your Money. Cruelly, there’s a post from January 2016, one of just two of his on the site, about remaining optimistic in difficult times. Robert also claims to run two financial-service companies, Hanami Management and Kyoto Investment, but neither company has a website, phone number or address.
Marc continues to operate TitanWall. After its assets were liquidated, he started the company again, renaming it TitanWall Technologies. Marc, who was not charged, was the only member of the family who’d speak to Alberta Venture. When asked if TitanWall had any outstanding loans to PFK, he said he had no idea where money came from. He said he wasn’t the owner, but a representative from AllStar Panels, TitanWall’s customer service arm, said he was. And AllStar is owned by Jane Miller, Jay’s ex-wife.
Jay didn’t respond to interview requests, and Robert declined. Robert Stack, the ASC prosecutor (no relation to Peter) refused to speak to specifics of the case, but called it a “fascinating cautionary tale.” Marc and the investors would agree. Marc says investors should read it as a call to diversify their portfolios and to not leverage themselves with a single investment. Stack, Friedenberg and Spencer all say it’s a cautionary tale, the moral of which is to not trust people like Jay.
Everyone’s also in agreement that nothing good will come of this. The investors won’t get their money back, nor will any length of jail time for Jay make them wealthier. As for the Peers family, it’s not as though they pocketed $80 million. The family is fractured, Jay will have no professional recovery, and whichever way you parse it, a family is preparing to watch two of its members go to jail. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of a $5-million fine and/or five years in jail. Though it’s unlikely, Jay, who’s in his early 70s, could be in prison for the rest of his life. “I lost my money,” Spencer says, “but Jay lost everything.”
So is Jay Peers a calculating, manipulative fraudster or someone who tried too hard to make his sons’ businesses succeed, against all odds?
The answer will likely be entombed along with the rubble of the Sylvancroft mansion. It was demolished on March 24. Beljan Development, which owns the property, searched for a buyer for four years to no avail. The City of Edmonton had petitioned the province to have it declared a historical site. It was denied. Teenagers were breaking in at night. Many of its windows were shattered. Amid a new development filled with ultra-modern homes, it was a visual aberration. But even Friedenberg reminisced about visiting Jay there. He remembered the campfire, the warm summer air blowing onto the balcony, the sense that he was, briefly, walking in the footsteps of an Edmonton dynasty.
Reprinted with permission from Alberta Venture.