Judge says makeshift nightclub’s illegal gathering was a ‘crime, not a party’

A B.C. Provincial Court judge says a Vancouver man who thumbed his nose at COVID-19-related restrictions by turning his swanky downtown penthouse into a packed makeshift nightclub in January is no better than the drug dealers fuelling the deadly opioid crisis.

Judge Ellen Gordon told Mohammad Movassaghi on Wednesday that he should count himself lucky that a Crown prosecutor wasn’t looking for a sentence greater than the time he had already spent in jail awaiting bail on charges of violating the orders of B.C.’s public health officer.

“Had Crown been seeking a period of incarceration, you need to know I would have imposed it,” Gordon told Movassaghi as he stood before her.

“If someone who had been at your party was infected and died, as far as I’m concerned, you’re guilty of manslaughter. If someone who had been at your party was infected and passed it on to grandma, as far as I’m concerned, you’re guilty of manslaughter,” the judge continued.

“What you did, sir, is comparable to individuals who sell fentanyl to the individuals on the street who die every  day. There’s no difference. You voluntarily assumed a risk that could kill people in the midst of a pandemic.”

First person in B.C. to be sentenced for breach of law

Gordon delivered the tongue-lashing as she sentenced Movassaghi to one day in jail and 18 months’ probation — with the record reflecting the fact that he spent seven days behind bars last month after he breached the initial terms of his release.

He’s the first person in British Columbia to be sentenced for a COVID-19-related breach under the province’s Public Health Act.

In addition to pleading guilty to one count of violating health orders and breaching his bail, Movassaghi also pleaded guilty to keeping liquor for sale.

Movassaghi’s penthouse was operating as a nightclub and show lounge, which featured menus, tables, point-of-sale terminals and cash tills. (Jon Hernandez/CBC News)

The 42-year-old was arrested on the last day of January after a month’s worth of complaints to police from neighbours of the $3 million penthouse suite, where he hosted gatherings in defiance of health orders that forbade him from entertaining any more than one guest, along with the girlfriend with whom he shares the two-bedroom suite.

Crown prosecutor Ellen Leno said police entered the unit armed with a search warrant just after 3 a.m. There were 78 people inside.

“People inside were shoulder to shoulder, some of them sitting down. The unit had been made into a makeshift nightclub,” Leno said.

“There was a pole mounted spanning the two floors, with a topless woman standing next to the pole and people seated watching her.”

‘He was conscious but faking’

Leno said police also observed a DJ station, stanchions to manage lineups, a bar and menus on the table entitled “Granny’s Exotic Bar” listing single drinks for sale up to $26 and whole bottles for as much as $1,500.

Lap dances were on offer for $46.

Police found Movassaghi hiding upstairs.

In this photograph provided by Movassaghi, Vancouver police officer can be viewed through the peephole of a penthouse apartment during an incident the week previous to the party for which he was arrested. (Mohammad Movassaghi)

Leno also described the bizarre scene that occurred when the concierge of Movassaghi’s building called police last month to say he appeared to be ushering women in and out of the building in violation of the orders of the judge who released the former financial planner on bail.

The Crown prosecutor said Movassaghi first asked police to give him a break, then asked if he could be transported to jail in a car instead of a wagon “and then collapsed on the floor without warning.”

Leno said police found cocaine in a coin purse and called paramedics, who quickly cleared Movassaghi to go.

“It was apparent to them, and they advised police, that he was conscious but faking,” she told the judge.

‘I don’t have stripper poles’

Movassaghi’s sentencing started off on the wrong foot as he initially appeared by telephone, only to have Gordon order him to come in person to the downtown courthouse so she could see him in front of her as she issued her orders.

He was represented by his brother, lawyer Bobby Movassaghi, who told Gordon that widespread publicity around the case had cost his brother work and caused great embarrassment to their parents, who are in their 70s.

Numerous Vancouver police vehicles converge on the street where police raided a penthouse party at Movassaghi’s home last January. (Emily Rogers)

The defence lawyer began his submissions by saying that the scene police walked into on Jan. 31 had “essentially blown up into something a lot more than what it was supposed to be.”

“I’m sure Your Honour can imagine people tend to invite their friends to parties without the party host necessarily knowing that,” Bobby Movassaghi told the judge.

But the judge was having none of it.

Gordon said she knew what parties were, because she used to have them herself, prior to the pandemic.

“I don’t have stripper poles. I don’t have chairs around for people to watch. I don’t charge admission. I don’t charge for liquor. I don’t have point-of-sale devices attached to my cellular telephones,” Gordon said.

“This isn’t a party. This is an event designed to provide people who were foolish enough to want to violate the health order and put their own health and their grandmother’s health at risk by coming to this because they couldn’t go to a bar. So let’s call it what it was: It was a crime, not a party.”

The judge also ordered Movassaghi to pay more than $5,000 in fines and to perform 50 hours of community service.

Movassaghi, who has an MBA from Cornell University, sounded chastened as he addressed the court before Gordon imposed his sentence.

“I just want to take this opportunity to apologize to Your Honour and the public for what’s taken place,” he said.

In the intervening months, Movassaghi said, he has made sure to follow the health care act “to a tee — wear a mask, social distance.”

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