Earlier this fall, former UBC athletes spanning generations gathered at a Vancouver pizza joint to celebrate the induction of several alumni into the school’s first-ever football wall of honour.
The atmosphere was jovial, as they reminisced about their wins and posed for pictures. Among those taking part was David Sidoo, 60, the star defensive back-turned-multimillionaire deal maker who in recent months had become ensnared in a high-profile college admissions scandal that alleged wealthy parents tried to buy their children’s way into top U.S. schools.
“He was in high spirits because he was with his friends and with his team. I know he’s under a lot of pressure,” Jason Riley, a friend and ex-teammate, told the National Post.
“We wanted to show support for him.”
The allegations have cast a shadow over Sidoo’s rags-to-riches life story and lengthy history of philanthropy and raised intriguing questions about why a man reputed to have a strong work ethic would, according to U.S. prosecutors, pay $200,000 for an imposter to take entrance exams for his two sons.
Experts who have studied unethical behaviour have floated a number of theories as to why parents might act in this manner, from worry about intense competition surrounding university admissions to the self-interested desire to preserve membership in society’s upper class.
“It’s this kind of rat race of constantly trying to preserve and seek out these status symbols that showcase to others that you’re doing well,” Paul Piff, a psychology professor at the University of California Irvine, told Vox earlier this year.
He’s a good-hearted person
Sidoo, who has pleaded not guilty, and his family declined through a communications representative to talk to the Post for this story. David Chesnoff, his Nevada-based lawyer, said in a statement: “Mr. Sidoo has a very robust defence that disputes the allegations, and we look forward to his day in court when we can present our side of this case. While this case remains before the courts, Mr. Sidoo will not be making any public comment.”
Sidoo’s supporters say whatever the outcome, his legacy shouldn’t be defined by it. Maybe he was “blinded by the love for his kids” and made a mistake, Riley said.
“He’s a good-hearted person. There’s a lot of people that have his wealth that are vindictive and angry people. Dave is not.”
* * *
Sidoo doesn’t have the celebrity status of other parents tangled up in the investigation, namely Hollywood stars Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. But he is well known in the South Asian community for being a football trailblazer and in the broader community for his business ventures and philanthropy.
“It’s well known that David and his wife are socialites in Vancouver and well-regarded in the business community,” said Paul Dhillon, editor of the Surrey, B.C.-based newspaper The Link.
Sidoo grew up in humble surroundings in New Westminster, B.C., the son of a sawmill-working immigrant father from Punjab in northern India and a stay-at-home mother. There were times growing up when he had only one meal a day, he has said in the past.
“There’s no silver spoon in his family,” said Amrik Virk, a former B.C. provincial politician and friend of the family.
“His personal story is … the story of hard work and persistence.”
There’s no silver spoon in his family
Sidoo’s father, Mall Singh, did not have an easy go of it after arriving in Canada. In April 1954, Singh made headlines when he dove into the Fraser River in an effort to bring a drowning victim to the surface. When Singh was later asked what he wanted in return for his heroism, he replied, “citizenship,” according to an anecdote Virk recalls hearing at a ceremony years ago honouring South Asian pioneers.
An August 1954 Vancouver Sun article reported that a Mall Singh had entered Canada the previous year on a temporary visa and was facing deportation. But Iqbal Sara, the first East Indian lawyer in B.C., appealed his case to the citizenship minister in Ottawa and Singh was allowed to stay in the country.
“This is what I speak of when I mentioned the early South Asian pioneers had hardships, even becoming Canadian,” Virk said.
Sidoo developed a love for football while attending New Westminster Secondary School. The coach at the time, Doug Woodward, lived near Sidoo and recalls walking home together after practice.
“He was a fairly mature kid, very polite. That’s what I liked about him. It was either ‘Coach Woodward’ or ‘Sir.’”
On the field, Sidoo wasn’t the biggest kid — maybe 135 or 140 pounds — but he was the hardest hitter, Woodward said.
Sidoo also left a favourable impression on his coaches when he joined the UBC Thunderbirds in 1978.
“As far as I’m concerned Dave is one of my favourite players and one of my favourite friends,” said then-head coach Frank Smith, who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame this year.
Sidoo was a “team man,” Smith said. “There are some guys that are really good players, but they’re not good team men. Dave was a good player and was a good team man.”
During Sidoo’s third year, his father passed away after a heart attack.
“I was just starting out and he didn’t see what I could do or what I’d become,” Sidoo told the Vancouver Province years later. “But he gave me so many things.”
In the same interview, Sidoo recalled Smith put his arm around him, telling him: “You’re going to play professional football and take care of your family.”
That’s what he did. In his fourth year, the Thunderbirds clinched the Vanier Cup national championship for the first time. That success paved the way for Sidoo’s entry into the Canadian Football League, where he made history as the first Indo-Canadian player.
It was a significant achievement at a time when East Indians, according to local headlines of the day, were the subjects of racial violence and harassment.
Dave was a good player and was a good team man
But the glory he’d attained at UBC was elusive in the CFL. After five seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, in which he served as a backup safety, a “disgruntled” Sidoo demanded a trade, the Regina Leader-Post reported at the time.
“If I’m not traded, I’m not going back to Saskatchewan. I’ll retire,” he told the paper.
He had already been preparing for life after football. During a one-week vacation he crammed for a securities exam while teammates played golf, according to a B.C. Business magazine profile years later. And during a short-lived stint with the B.C. Lions, “he spent his mornings at a downtown brokerage firm, racing to football practice in the afternoons and then splitting his evenings between making cold calls and studying the Lions’ play book.”
The preparation paid off after he left the field for good in 1988.
* * *
Fast-forward 20 years to January 2018.
Sidoo is standing in a downtown Vancouver conference room at a metals investor forum. Dressed in a button-down shirt and suit jacket, he is talking about his foray into the lithium sector. Advantage Lithium, the junior mineral exploration company he founded, has, in 18 months, moved from a $5 million market capitalization to $190 million. Drilling projects are said to be underway in Argentina.
At one point in his presentation, which was posted on YouTube, he pauses to share a funny story about how he was in Maui recently when his phone buzzed with an emergency text alert about an incoming ballistic missile.
“I’m like, holy shit, we’re about to hit a motherlode in Argentina, I’m going to make another fortune, and I’m going to get blown up by North Korea.”
The crowd chuckles. (The alert was erroneous and sent accidentally by a state employee.)
Following professional football, Sidoo cut his investing teeth at brokerages Canaccord and Yorkton Securities. He became a “top revenue generator,” according to his website.
After a decade of looking after other people’s money, he switched to investment banking — building companies from scratch and raising capital.
“His core of who he is is his love of being on a team,” said Peter Espig, CEO of Nicola Mining and director in two of Sidoo’s companies. “Being in a boardroom with Dave is like being in a locker room at halftime.”
One of Sidoo’s biggest start-up-to-sale achievements came in 2010 when American Oil & Gas Inc., of which he was a founding shareholder, was sold to Hess Corp. for over $600 million.
Since then, Sidoo has been involved in several public micro-cap companies focused in various high-risk resource sectors. One area he set his sights on was the emerging lithium market, a sector he called a “hot space” due to growth in electrical vehicle production and the demand for lithium-ion batteries. In a September 2016 interview with FutureMoneyTrends.com, Sidoo predicted Advantage Lithium was “probably going for a touchdown in the next six to 12 months.”
Being in a boardroom with Dave is like being in a locker room at halftime
A recent press release touted the results of a pre-feasibility study of the company’s flagship production facility in Argentina that found “proven and probable mineral reserves … sufficient to support 30 years of production.” But while Advantage Lithium’s shares reached $1.32 in January 2018, the company has since lost more than 87 per cent of its value. Its market cap is at $26 million.
Some of the other companies Sidoo is attached to have recently undergone restructuring and pivoted to other industries, like cannabis and hemp cultivation.
His associates say these changes should not be seen as a failure.
”You have to be nimble and be able to pivot in order to be successful,” Virk said.
If anything it speaks to his pragmatism, risk aversion and concern for shareholders, Espig said.
“Dave always thinks about others before he thinks about himself.”
There’s no question Sidoo’s climb has afforded him a lavish lifestyle. Several years ago, his family moved into one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods — Point Grey’s Belmont Avenue overlooking Spanish Banks. In 2012, he spent more than $600,000 on landscaping, according to court documents stemming from a contract dispute. (The dispute was later dismissed by court order.)
It was the biggest mistake of my life
According to the most recent assessment, the home is valued at over $35 million.
As Sidoo’s status rose, it put him in the company of powerful people. In 2008, he co-organized a private dinner that featured retired U.S. four-star general Colin Powell, Grammy Award-winning music producer Quincy Jones and a who’s who of Vancouver’s elite.
One year, Sidoo and his wife, Manjy, snagged R&B superstar Jennifer Hudson to headline a fundraising gala for the Vancouver Opera.
Those relationships have not come without controversy. In 2007, Sidoo had a public falling out with celebrated chef Rob Feenie. Sidoo and his wife had stepped in to help Feenie with some debts and took majority ownership of his restaurants, Lumiere and Feenie’s.
Feenie accused the couple of forcing him out, telling the National Post he had the “wool pulled over my eyes” and that he had “turned to the wrong people for help.”
“It was the biggest mistake of my life,” he said at the time. Sidoo told reporters they had tried to work things out and Feenie quit.
Prior to this year though, the bulk of the headlines about Sidoo were mostly flattering and usually related to his family’s philanthropy.
They have given generously. A new scoreboard for his high school’s stadium. Breakfast programs to feed inner-city children. UBC scholarships. A fundraising venture to reinvigorate UBC’s football program.
“No one has given back to the community more than Dave has,” Espig said.
Sidoo has been showered with accolades in return. He was inducted into the B.C. Football Hall of Fame and B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, honoured with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and awarded the Order of B.C.
In a 2017 interview with the Indo-Canadian Voice, Sidoo said the opportunities for Indo-Canadian youth were infinite, invoking, as he has often done, a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps work ethic.
“A country like Canada is a place that our immigrant parents came to (in order) to help us get an education and whether you are a mathematician, a violinist, a great pianist or an athlete, if you put your mind to it in Canada, you can do anything you want. And I think that’s what I did.”
* * *
Behind the scenes, however, U.S. prosecutors were developing a very different portrait of Sidoo that suggested he didn’t apply that work ethic to his children.
An indictment filed by prosecutors in U.S. District Court in Boston alleges Sidoo arranged in the fall of 2011 to have someone take an SAT college entrance exam for his older son, Dylan, for $100,000.
The test taker posing as his son received instructions not to get too high a score because Dylan had previously taken the exam himself and got 1460 out of 2400, the indictment says.
The following year, Sidoo is alleged to have made a similar arrangement for his younger son, Jordan. In this instance, the test taker was instructed to get a high score, as Jordan had not previously taken the exam.
Court documents say in the fall of 2013, William Singer, the man accused of masterminding the admissions scheme, drafted a falsified college application essay that purported Jordan had done an internship with an organization that aims to combat gang violence in L.A.
“The essay falsely claimed that Sidoo’s younger son had been held up at gunpoint by gang members in Los Angeles,” the indictment reads. “Singer emailed the essay to Sidoo. Sidoo wrote back with minor changes to the essay and asked, ‘can we lessen the interaction with the gangs. Guns…? That’s scary stuff.”
The part about the guns was taken out, according to the allegations in the indictment.
In 2015, prosecutors allege, Sidoo talked to Singer about having someone take graduate management or law school admissions tests for Dylan. But, according to court documents, Singer wrote back that the LSAT would not be possible because of fingerprinting requirements.
Prosecutors allege arrangements were made for someone to take the GMAT in Dylan’s place, but it did not happen because the fake IDs were of poor quality.
Dylan and Jordan have since graduated from the University of Southern California and University of California Berkeley, respectively. They’ve not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Sidoo was charged with conspiring to commit offences related to mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. His lawyers have previously asked the public not to rush to judgment. The case is set to return to court in the new year.
After the allegations became public, Sidoo stepped down as CEO of Advantage Lithium and East West Petroleum. His son, Dylan, also vacated his seat on East West’s board. Sidoo will not seek re-election at the company’s annual general meeting Dec. 12, according to a recent company filing.
One of the company’s shareholders has gone public to question how his son made it on the board in the first place.
“How he could be sitting on the gas and oil firm’s board with hardly any experience — it just baffles me,” said Jeff Emans by phone from his home in Illinois. “That’s pure nepotism.”
Sidoo did not respond to a series of written questions, including the allegation of nepotism. Asked if Dylan wished to respond, Kelly Gleeson, the family’s communications representative, said: “The family has chosen not to comment.”
Dhillon said it is not uncommon for East Indian immigrant families to pass a business from one generation to another.
“To me, he said they earned it and they deserve to be there.”
While Sidoo awaits his day in court, many other parents have pleaded guilty, as well as Singer, for their roles in the scheme, which, in some cases, involved faking applicants’ athletic credentials.
To me, he said they earned it and they deserve to be there
Rutgers University management professor Oliver Sheldon, who has studied unethical behaviour, says there are different theories that could explain why parents, with seemingly all the advantages of the world, might behave this way.
One theory suggests a self-interested reason: they perceive their membership in the upper class, which they worked hard to achieve, as under threat if their kids fail to get into a great school. They feel entitled “to do whatever it takes” to protect against this.
Another theory suggests a more pro-social reason: they perceive their kids’ well-being and success in life as under threat due to the intense competition around school admissions. When people identify with a so-called “ingroup,” this intense identification can lead them to “disengage from or disassociate themselves with moral principles” and behave unethically on behalf of members of that ingroup.
Sheldon cited a 2012 joint study by researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Toronto that found upper-class individuals behave more unethically than those in lower classes.
People who drive fancy cars, for instance, were four times more likely to cut off other cars and three times more likely to cut off a pedestrian waiting to cross an intersection. The study also found upper-class individuals were twice as likely to help themselves to a jar of candy reserved for children than lower-class individuals.
“Unethical behaviour in the service of self-interest that enhances the individual’s wealth and rank may be a self-perpetuating dynamic that further exacerbates economic disparities in society,” the researchers wrote.
But there are exceptions to this trend, they noted, pointing to the “significant philanthropy displayed by such individuals as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.”
Sidoo’s supporters keep pivoting back to this point.
“David Sidoo has been repeatedly recognized for his philanthropic endeavours, which is the true testament to his character,” his lawyer Richard Schonfeld has said.
Wally Oppal, B.C.’s former attorney general, told the Post: “I want the people who read your article to know that he’s a very decent person who’s helped out a lot of people. That shouldn’t be forgotten.”
“We can’t hide that there are allegations in the U.S.,” Espig said. “But I would say: how do you judge a man? Do you judge a man based on 999 acts that are incredibly good? Or the one act that may not be good?”
Virk, a former RCMP officer who once served as B.C.’s advanced education minister, said: ”I see Dave the giver, the family that gives back, the philanthropist, the self-made man. … I sense he will always continue to give back in the best way he can, irrespective of the outcome.”
Do you judge a man based on 999 acts that are incredibly good? Or the one act that may not be good?
But a $10,000 UBC law school entrance award that Sidoo and his wife have presented every year since 2015 was not handed out this year. The prize is awarded to someone who has faced “a significant personal challenge in order to pursue a university education, such as an illness, a death in the family or an injury.”
Neither Sidoo nor his representatives would say why it was withheld this year. A UBC spokesman said such gifts “do not necessarily follow a regular calendar for disbursement.”
When the award was first announced, a press release said Sidoo had committed $50,000.
“My hope is that this contribution will have an impact on the student experience at UBC,” he was quoted as saying. “It reflects our desire to provide assistance for students’ ability to overcome personal or financial challenges to acquire education that is their right.”
— With files from Victor Ferreira