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Winnipeg's First Family of millionaire moochers have outdone themselves

Last week it was announced that "Penny" Lenny, "Brother Can You Spare A Dime" David, and Gigglin' Gail Asper had managed to ride their daddy's Canwest Global empire into the toilet.

It's been an open secret for more than a year that these business sharpies were headed for bankruptcy court. It was last October that Canwest shares officially became a penny stock. In 2000 the stock traded at $18.55 a share; it had collapsed to 93 cents in the fall (pun intended) of 2008. It hit bottom at 12 1/2 cents before bouncing up to a whopping 20 cents a share in September.

And now we learn that the Aspers' plan for restructuring includes stiffing their employees for their vacation pay.

When it comes to their own pet projects, they've got their hands out; when it comes to their employees, it's "talk to the hand."

Among their victims are local favourites Meera Bahadoosingh and Andrea Slobodian who left Global TV Winnipeg last month for new jobs with Shaw TV (Andrea in Calgary, Meera in Murda City).

It turns out the former Global employees had been working to subsidize the millionaire owners of the TV station. They've been cheated out of thousands of dollars as the Aspers play Big Shot for their Winnipeg sycophants.

With more than a year to prepare, you would think that Penny Lenny Asper, Canwest Global president and CEO, would have set aside the cash to pay the money owed to employees leaving the company.

He prepared alright.

When filing for bankruptcy protection last week, Canwest requested the court to set aside $9.8 million in bonus payments for "key employees" to keep them on the job during the restructuring instead of bolting for the exit doors to find new jobs.

And just in case...the executives have strapped on their golden parachutes.

As of last September, Canwest Mediaworks president and CEO Dennis Skulsky was being paid $750,000 a year in base salary and bonuses. If he loses his job, he's guaranteed two years base salary and the average annual bonus collected over the previous three-year period

In an email to staff last week, Canwest chief executive Leonard Asper, who last year collected a $900,000 salary and a bonus of $153,780, cried crocodile tears over the 60 or so employees he's cheating out of the money they earned. "We sincerely regret the impact to them," he sniffed.

Meanwhile, Canwest spokesman John Douglas said that any ex-employee screwed out of money can take a number and line up with the other creditors. They could, he said pompously, " be part of the claims process."

Such callous treatment of the "little people" should be a huge red flag to the local governments who have been treating the Aspers like royalty instead of the panhandlers they've become.

...because stiffing the help is a pattern with the Aspers, not the rich man's burden they pretend.

In 2008, back when David Asper was still considered a "playa", he spent like a drunken sailor to win CRTC approval for his planned takeover of the license granted to radio station 107.9 FM. The license was for a campus radio station, but the owners had done an end-around the CRTC, dispensing with actually enrolling students, and running it as a commercial hip-hop station under the name 'Flava'.

Phat David bought up the private owner of 'Flava' and set up a company called YO Management to run the station. He promised the CRTC everything under the sun to let him keep the license, including taking over all the debts to former staff owed by 'Flava'.

Enter Duvol Dryden, a DJ and Flava radio host who was owed $10,000.

Dryden, taking Asper at his word, tried to collect his money after winning a federal Labour Board order, only to get the royal Asper runaround at every turn. He finally wrote to the CRTC during the hearing process to plead his case.

Frank Magazine found Dryden's letter in the CRTC files, from which we quote:

"I was supposedly a student representative on the board. For the record, I was never a student in any affiliated school course," he wrote in his intervention. "I was never invited to a board meeting, I never saw or approved minutes of a board meeting, and I was never invited to an Annual General Meeting."

"I see that the new supposed management of Harmony Broadcasting includes David Asper. Mr. Asper is behind a museum of human rights that going to cost a few million dollars. Human Rights? Here I am being treated like a black slave, being cheated out of my wages by someone Mr. Asper wants to reward with a high-paying guaranteed job, and he's sitting there saying 'Nothing personal, boy. Just business.'"

Nothing personal. Sound familiar?

Local governments fawned over the Aspers when they were known as the billionaire family owners of a media empire, promising them tens of millions of dollars for their pet projects. In return, the Aspers played their roles as rich benefactors, although the recipients of their largesse were usually themselves (the Canadian Museum for Human Rights) or their millionaire friends (The Friends of Upper Fort Garry).

Now that they've been exposed as the better-off brethren of the begging bums on Portage Avenue, it's time governments got off their knees and sounded the forbidden words: NOT ANOTHER PENNY.

C'mon. Does anybody believe David Asper can pull $100 million out of his hindquarters and buy the Blue Bombers, build a new stadium and finance a high-end mall for the luxury set? This year? Next year? The year after? The year after the year after?

Haven't we heard that chorus before? Little sister Gail has been singing it for years with her pet project, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. You know, the one she's never been able to raise the money for despite years of begging.

Her last publicity stunt fundraiser was a grape-stomping event a local restaurant where she raised $25,000, which barely covers six months of globetrotting by the museum's Chief Operating Officer Patrick O'Reilly.

The museum hasn't been built yet and it's already on the verge of going belly up. $45 to $50 million in the hole. Not a hope of ever seeing that money without digging into the taxpayers' pockets.

The tradesmen better start asking for certified cheques in advance.

Just ask Andrea Slobodian and Meera Bahadoosingh what the Aspers' word is worth.

* H/t to The Great Canadian Talk Show

Professional Reporters at Work

Mary Agnes Welch, Winnipeg Free Press, Oct. 10, 2009, "Museum globetrotters"

"The museum is asking Ottawa to cover a $5.2-million budget shortfall this year by advancing money ear-marked for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Museum communications director Angela Cassie says the original star-tup estimates first submitted to Ot-tawa have since been revised to allow more of the work to be done this year.
The museum will still be at least $5 million short of annual operating funds when it opens, thanks to main-tenance costs and property taxes not originally factored into the price of running the facility. The museum plans to fundraise to cover some of those costs, but warned in its annual report released Friday that future operating budgets presented to government could include requests for more money."

James Adams, Globe and Mail, Oct. 14, 2009, "Human-rights museum dodges financial crisis"

"The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, still an estimated three years from opening its doors in Winnipeg, has dodged a financial crisis, thanks to an accounting sleight of hand.

In its 2008-09 annual report tabled late last week in the House of Commons, the museum announced that the government has approved a request for an advance of $5.2-million to meet its operating budget for the current fiscal year. The money is being "reprofiled" from the $21.7-million the Conservative government previously had benchmarked for the Crown corporation's operations in 2011-12.

Previously, the CMHR, the construction of which began this year, had been budgeted to receive $3.4-million to operate during the 2009-2010 fiscal year ending March 31. The $3.4-million was part of a $6.1-million operating package Ottawa provided for 2008-09 and 2009-2010."

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