Less than two months after winning the municipal election, West Vancouver Mayor Mark Sager is facing regulatory scrutiny over his legal work.
The Law Society of B.C. has issued a citation against Sager, alleging he committed professional misconduct while handling a friend’s estate between 2010 and 2020. Among the allegations, the citation accuses Sager of taking money from the estate when he didn’t have authorization, and not acting in the best interests of the estate’s beneficiaries.
The law society alleges Sager was in a conflict of interest by causing a will to be prepared for his client in which he was named trustee of a life interest and given absolute discretion to use estate funds to travel to England, without ensuring that his friend received independent legal advice.
The law society also alleges Sager withdrew funds improperly from the estate, including more than $8,800 over a seven-year period between July 2010 and October 2017 “when you were not entitled to those funds.” The citation also alleges Sager withdrew “some or all of $40,000 in executor fees” and more than $24,000 in management fees before receiving permission from the courts or beneficiaries.
The citation also alleges that between December 2010 and May 2019, Sager invested estate assets with his spouse, an investment manager at an investment firm, without the knowledge and consent of all beneficiaries.
Finally, Sager is accused of not keeping proper accounts for the estate, not maintaining contact with the beneficiaries of the estate for about nine years, not administering the estate in the best interests of those beneficiaries, and not filing estate taxes as required.
The allegations against Sager haven’t been proven, and will be the subject of a hearing before a disciplinary panel of the law society. A date for that hasn’t been set yet.
According to the law society, citations are issued in cases “where a lawyer’s alleged conduct is serious.”
Sager describes allegations as 'inaccurate and unfair'
Sager did not make himself available for comment on Wednesday, but sent a statement to the North Shore News describing the allegations as “inaccurate and unfair.”
“I look forward to proving that to the law society at my hearing,” he wrote, adding he had nothing more to say.
This isn’t the first time Sager has been in trouble with the law society.
Two years ago, Sager was fined $20,000 and ordered to pay a further $20,000 in legal costs by the law society after being found guilty of professional misconduct that involved directing a will be prepared for his godmother that named Sager as one of the beneficiaries. The new will had the effect of cutting out one of the woman’s relatives while including Sager and his sister. Following the elderly woman’s death, Sager received a cheque for his share of the estate amounting to $96,000.
In its ruling in 2019, the disciplinary panel found Sager’s breach of the rules was “a marked departure from the standard that the law society expects of lawyers and thus amounts to professional misconduct.”
In the case involving the current citation, the beneficiaries weren’t relatives but are believed to be local non-profit societies or charities named in the estate.
Sager applied to keep citation anonymous
The citation against Sager was issued by the law society in September, during the local election campaign.
But Sager’s name and any identifying details were removed from the citation after Sager filed an application to keep the information anonymous.
Sager argued that if his name was made public it would hinder his ability to effectively negotiate on behalf of his community for spots in Metro Vancouver committees and that the stigma could result in "significant and longstanding public harm to the residents of his community."
Sager also argued making his name public would create difficulties for senior district staff who participated in the law society investigation against him.
The law society eventually rejected that application, with an adjudicator ruling that Sager's newly elected role as mayor didn't make him "more deserving of anonymity" than other lawyers. That decision was made public Wednesday afternoon.
Just prior to that, Sager did an exclusive interview with the CBC which was published Wednesday morning, saying he wanted to clear his name.
Council members informed by Sager Monday
West Vancouver council members were informed of the law society allegations on Monday, following the council meeting, when Sager called them into his office.
“I was very surprised and saddened,” said Coun. Nora Gambioli. “It seems a pretty serious matter.”
Gambioli said she’s concerned that the allegations against Sager could have an impact on the district’s relationships with other municipalities and governments.
Reaction from council in general was “pretty subdued,” she said. “Mark did most of the talking.”
Gambioli added “he was pretty adamant he was not interested in stepping aside.”
Two other councillors who ran with the support of Sager during the election told the North Shore News they had heard about the law society investigation in the summer, adding it was part of a “whisper campaign” at the time.
Coun. Linda Watt said she found it concerning that members of the community knew about the investigation before it was made public.
She said she continues to support Sager, and isn’t concerned about the allegations. “He has my support throughout the process,” she said. “Mayor Sager has never acted with ill intent.”
Coun. Sharon Thompson said she also supports Sager and doesn’t think the investigation will impact his ability to carry out his municipal duties. “He’s looking forward to proving himself right,” she said. “We certainly stand behind Mark.”
Former councillor Craig Cameron, who opted not to run in the last election, said he was concerned to learn about the allegations against Sager, adding the law society doesn’t issue citations lightly. “As a lawyer I think it reflects poorly on the profession. As a West Vancouver citizen I think it doesn’t reflect well on West Vancouver,” he said.