Media, money and misdirection: our Titanic investigation wraps | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
A photo of the original RMS Titanic.
A photo of the original RMS Titanic.

Media, money and misdirection: our Titanic investigation wraps

Halifax’s Titanic tourist attraction sank. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

Last week, Halifax found out the city was getting a $300 million Titanic tourist attraction, complete with a hotel, restaurant and aquarium. We’d be treated to “the best of food and wines from Nova Scotia and around the world,” “escape hatches and virtual reality rooms” and a “revolutionary 4Dp holographic stage,” whatever that is. These wonderful promises were first made public by a story in the Chronicle Herald last week, which sourced the irresistible details from a series of LinkedIn posts by Clark Squires, a local consultant and self-proclaimed “authorized representative for the Titanic Experience in Nova Scotia.”

The first Herald story, which had no byline and didn’t include an interview with Squires, was a sensation on social media. After that, Squires gave interviews for two more Herald stories and a piece for Global news. “This is going to be huge for Halifax,” he told the former, “it’s full speed ahead to develop this Titanic Experience.” We at The Coast thought all of this sounded too good to be true. And that’s because it was.

Last Thursday, we looked into Squires’ company, Clark Squires and Associates. We tracked down the origin of the attraction’s rendering that spread around our news feeds. We dug into a possible connection between Squires and a dubious United Nations Department. Our one-day investigation led us to details that fell apart upon scrutiny, and a lot of red flags.

We promised we’d keep looking into this situation, and we did. We got to the bottom of the Titanic situation, which as it turns out, was just the tip of the iceberg.

Our reporting has led us down rabbit holes we couldn’t even imagine, and taken us far beyond Halifax. And telling you the tale is a journey of its own, with a stop in Niagara Falls before we’re off to London and a mysterious tropical kingdom.

This story began with public Linkedin posts, which, we should note early, can be freely read and referenced by practically anybody, including journalists. “I never intended to allow that to get into the media,” Squires tells us in a phone interview after our first story came out.

Well, it did, and here we are.

A tale of many Titanics

Where we last left off, we had figured out that the rendering of a Titanic attraction for Halifax, nabbed off of Squire’s LinkedIn and widely republished, was actually the design of a different Titanic attraction proposed in Niagara Falls. That rendering was designed by Lex Parker Interior Design Consultants for their client, David van Velzen of dv3 Imagineering Inc. It came as a surprise to Parker and van Velzen that their design had been making rounds in Halifax news outlets, and they had never heard of Squires until last week.

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The rendering for Experience Titanic in Niagara Falls, designed by Lex Parker Interior Design Consultants and commissioned by David van Velzen.

Squires says he got the rendering as part of a pitch deck shared with him by developer Zoran Cocov, of Cocov Destinations in the Niagara region. It’s Cocov and Squires who have been working together on the possible Titanic attraction in Halifax, and van Velzen and Parker on the project in Niagara. In that phone interview with Squires last Friday, he tells us van Velzen would clear everything up as to how that rendering travelled so far. “He will explain exactly where I am in the overall picture,” Squires says, “and where Zoran Cocov is involved in all this.”

We did speak with Cocov. We also spoke to van Velzen, as well as Lex and Susan Parker from the design firm. (It was Susan who recently spent time commenting on social posts that the Titanic image had been stolen from the designer firm.) We heard their stories and they answered questions, and as far as the Titanic goes, this is how it all went down.

Van Velzen has worked on many Titanic projects in the past, including three exhibitions that toured to Toronto, Chicago and Las Vegas. He co-produced an exhibition at The Venetian resort in Macau for the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking in 2012. One of his companies republished a 1997 book called Titanic: The Canadian Story in 2012. He’s currently working with a museum in Ontario to produce a touring exhibition also called Titanic: The Canadian Story. It will tour 10 Canadian cities, van Velzen says, including Halifax, as early as 2024.

Van Velzen has been trying to get a Titanic museum attraction built in the Niagara area for years. The companies Experience Titanic Inc and The Titanic Project Inc are registered in his name. The first project, designed by Lex Parker, was set to open in the Skylon Tower in 2014, but the landlord backed out. Next, van Venzen tried to secure the site of the Niagara Falls Memorial Arena.

This project would be a $30 million walk-through museum experience, which Parker also designed—and this is the rendering we’ve all seen. Lex says the landlord of that site is difficult to communicate with, and Lex and van Velzen are still negotiating for that spot today. “We had negotiated for this property where we had a deal, we didn't have a deal, we had another deal, that deal didn't go,” van Velzen says.

In the meantime, van Velzen and Lex shopped around for other sites for the project. This is where Cocov enters the picture. He approached van Velzen and offered up property he owned in the Niagara area. “It wasn’t suitable for us,” van Velzen says. The two kept in touch for a while, but at this point van Velzen says he hasn’t spoken to Cocov in three years.

Next, van Velzen and Parker tried their luck in Welland, Ontario. A third concept was drawn up, this time for a $70 million Titanic replica resort that would sit on the Welland Canal, and also include a hotel and restaurant. This was in 2016. “And all of this was going to be privately funded. All we wanted from the city was approval,” Lex says. “Then the city got cold feet and decided not to do it.”

Ever since, they’ve been trying to secure that arena land for the museum attraction. “It's a project that we've put our hearts into,” Susan says, “we're just hoping that it will come together one way or another.”

Setting sail for Halifax

It was about six months ago that Squires posted on his LinkedIn page about a Titanic project with a 4D holographic stage, using the graphic from Lex Parker. Last week the Herald amplified that post, and suddenly Lex and van Velzen started receiving calls that their rendering was being used for a Titanic attraction in Halifax. “We thought, but what's going on here? That's not possible,: Susan says. “They can't do that.”

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Part 1 of a post on Clark Squires' LinkedIn dated December 3, 2021 about the Titanic project. He told the Herald $150 million would go into the Titanic replica, and the other $150 million toward other developments in the area, such as apartment buildings.

Van Velzen called Squires. “I just said, ‘hey, you know, you're using an image that doesn't belong to you,’” he says. “He—Squires—was very apologetic, a little shocked and bewildered. He said ‘I would never use, you know, intellectual property that did not belong to me.’”

Cocov, in a phone interview early this week, says he and Squires have known each other for many years, and their Titanic project, the one we heard about, is in very early stages. “I asked him to find land, whether it's the Titanic or to build something else. I asked him to find waterfront land,” he says.

Their attraction is nothing but an idea right now, not the “full speed ahead” we heard in the press. “It's a concept. That's all it is until there's land, there's nothing that's happening in Halifax,” Cocov says.

Squires told us, “That information was given to me via Zoran in a PowerPoint presentation and a business plan for the entire Titanic project in Niagara Falls. And I looked at that, and I said, Well, I said, 'Zoran, maybe we can look at doing something in Halifax.' We felt that there was an opportunity to do something in Halifax rather than Niagara Falls. He agreed. And that's how I had that email, which I posted on my LinkedIn.”

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Part 2 of a post on Clark Squires' LinkedIn dated December 3, 2021 about the Titanic project.

“Zoran Cocov basically sent him every tourist idea that he had, and the one that he took to was Titanic,” van Velzen says, “because he thought that might be an opportunity for Halifax. At $300 million, it’s not.”

Van Velzen says Cocov did not have permission to share the rendering and has no right to his companies’ intellectual property. “This is wrong on a multitude of levels.”

Now, we must note that it’s unclear what exactly Cocov shared with Squires: Whether it was van Velzen’s pitch deck that Cocov got a copy of, or a pitch deck Cocov made with the stolen image. But the end result is the same either way, as van Velzen and Lex were not pleased about their design going viral in the wrong place.

Cocov says he isn’t familiar with Lex Parker Interior Design Consultants. The Coast told him the rendering he shared with Squires is from Lex Parker Design. “It might be, yes. I did not ask for anyone to publish it. They didn't have any authority. My design will be completely different,” Cocov says.

“Anyone can do any design. It's not copyright to design a Titanic, but mine will be completely different. That's all I can tell you,” Cocov continues.

To be fair to Squires, he told us repeatedly that nobody outside of his personal network was supposed to see his posts of the rendering. So, van Velzen is mad at Cocov for sharing the rendering, and Cocov is in turn mad at Squires for posting it. Naturally in this game of passing the buck, Squires is mad at the Herald for spreading his posts.

“That was a social media post on my LinkedIn, which I've been doing for 15 years. And somehow, which I've never had happen, somebody from Saltwire went in and picked it up,” Squires says, using the name of a company connected to the Herald. (Saltwire is the paper’s sibling, maybe, or parent—anyway, that exercise in corporate branding is one rabbit hole we’re going to avoid in this story.)

Squires had no privacy settings on his page. And so, as we explained to him during our interview, everything on LinkedIn is published and considered in the public domain, just like Facebook and Twitter. Squires says he thought LinkedIn was strictly business to business.

But later on in the call, Squires bragged about how online he really is.

“I've been around social media before you people knew what social media was. I was involved in online communication, before there was the internet, called the online information. I was very involved in that back in the early ‘80s. So I know what can happen if you put information into the wrong hands.”

Upon seeing the first Herald piece, “I was dumbfounded. I said, Oh, my god. I said, Why would they do that without even talking to me, this is totally going to cause a huge backlash,” Squires says. This is the man who sat for two interviews with the Herald and another for Global News after that first Herald piece, talking about how great an opportunity his Titanic attraction would be for Halifax.

Squires says he posted about the Titanic attraction just to test the waters, and see if there was an interest for that kind of project in Halifax. “I would never do a full blown press release without ensuring that I have spent lots of time talking to the various societies, talking to the academics, talking to historians,” he says. “This got out way before it should have and it wasn't right.”

Halifax’s newest Titanic grave

“At face value, I do feel badly for Clark. I don’t think it should have gone this way. I think it was an innocent post on his part. It just got out of hand,” van Velzen says.

He’s spoken to Squires a few times since the Titanic story went viral. “He said to me that based on the reaction that he did not want to be involved in the Halifax project,” van Velzen says. Squires offered to help van Velzen with his Titanic project instead.

Van Velzen’s project is a far cry from the attraction Squires told Halifax outlets about, the one with an aquarium, hotel and restaurant. Experience Titanic (not to be confused with Halifax: A Titanic Experience) is set to be more of a walk-through museum. As van Velzen says, “the difference between $30 million and $300 million.” Experience Titanic would “put you on the ship,” beginning in the engine room and travelling through third, second and finally first class. Visitors would take a look at the opulence of the first class, and then experience a simulation of hitting the iceberg. “It’s a museum attraction that tells the story of the Titanic and tells the story of its passengers,” van Velzen says.

“We’re not being disrespectful to the passengers, we’re trying to tell that story: Real people, whether they be rich, whether they be new immigrants. This is their story. We’ll highlight passengers from Ontario and the rest of Canada: the Molson family from Montreal, the Bridge family. There was a third-class passenger who ended up in St Catherine’s, Ontario, a doctor from Hamilton, you know. We’ll talk about these people. That’s the idea.”

He is willing to work with Squires on a Titanic attraction—but not in Halifax. “It’s not sustainable,” says van Velzen. “You get five million visitors a year for tourism in Halifax. On a $30 million project you would need to sustain it, you would need half a million paying customers, which is 10 percent of what the tourism is, which we wouldn’t get. And a lot of them come on a cruise ship, and I’m not gonna get any land on the waterfront.”

He says the numbers Squires published just don’t add up. “The guy put a post in his LinkedIn account. There’s no due diligence involved in this thing, he just threw it down. Okay, this gonna work? A $300 million tourist project in Halifax, Nova Scotia is insanity.”

For Squires’ part, he says he would take suggestions on a better approach to Titanic replicas. “I'm open to anything that makes sense that people will find a comfort in and, more importantly, honour the victims of the Titanic.

“I thought this was a tremendous opportunity for Halifax, but maybe it's not.”

What about the UN?

Right now, it looks like the only Titanic attraction coming to Halifax is van Velzen’s touring exhibition in 2024. And it seems the whole Squires and Cocov Titanic attraction situation can be dismissed as some overzealous LinkedIn posting that probably never should have seen the light of day. But because the Herald made it the talk of the town without appropriate skepticism prompting us to look deeper into the situation, we ended up going down an extremely weird path. That’s right, we’re talking about the fake UN department.

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A post from Squires' LinkedIn about his involvement in the UNDSMA.

When we started poking into the man behind the Titanic project, The Coast found a letter on his website from a man named Steve Leighton, calling himself director of the United Nations Department of Sport, Music and the Arts. The two met, according to Leighton in one of many phone calls with The Coast, “through an associate of mine.”

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Steve Leighton's UNDSMA letter to Clark Squires, endorsing his Ukraine Festival for Hope.

Squires says his link with the UNDSMA is through a festival that he pitched to Leighton, which Leighton endorsed in the letter. Squires was tasked to help with a “Ukraine Festival for Hope”— which he describes as a $20 million benefit concert with “the same group that did Live Aid.” This didn’t get off the ground. Unsurprisingly, Leighton “scolded” Squires for posting the “private” letter on his website.

Leighton says he has nothing to do with the Titanic attraction, and wasn’t happy we connected him with it in our first article. “I don't know these people. I don't know anybody connected to this Titanic thing. I don't know anything about it.” He did say Squires sent him information about the Titanic project, but that he didn’t respond.

As for what Squires knows, he says “I've got, probably at any given time, 25 to 30 projects. I try to vet through them, I try to ensure, well, see which ones are real, which ones aren't.” Squires says.

Squires has removed all information related to both the Titanic attraction and the UNDSMA from his website and LinkedIn.

And that’s where the Titanic story seems to end. But pulling the thread of the story from Squires to Leighton took us into some deep deep rabbit holes, most of which are not relevant here. And if we’re being honest, probably not that interesting to people who are not deep in the weeds on this story. But if you’re reading this, you are. So let’s start with the UNDSMA website.

Enter the rabbit hole

For this story, The Coast had to call a lot of people from various UN departments. Of the United Nations departments we called, only one removed and then changed the phone number on its website.

Of the United Nations departments we called, only one called us back threatening to sue for defamation.

And of the United Nations departments we called, only one uses the free website hosting company Wix.

“I hope the UN doesn’t use Wix. The world is in far greater peril than I imagined if they do,” says a senior web consultant who looked into a bunch of sites for The Coast. Real UN Departments tend to use UN servers.

Speaking of calling people, if you think you are being called by a scammer representing themselves as a company the best way to avoid that is to hang up and call the company the caller is representing. When The Coast called official UN departments, or other agencies to investigate the UNDSMA, we spoke with people who did not know about the UNDSMA.

When we called people involved in the UNDSMA circle, even when calling other seemingly legitimate organizations, we heard back from Leighton. Never the people we were trying to call.

Speaking of websites

One of the stranger threads of this web we pulled was on the world wide one. Leighton sent The Coast a legal-looking document he called a mandate from the UN. The Coast was promised that if we just sent it to the UN, they would be able to verify it. The UN did not verify the document.

The document in question is a memorandum of understanding between the UNDSMA and an orginization called the Organization For Human Rights Defence. Two of the signatories on the page, besides Leighton and Byron Byrd (who we’ll get to shortly), were H.E. Lord Duke Admiral Lawrence-Olivier Campbell and H.E. HRH Lord Sir Robert-Orville Thomas.

Both of those Lords are listed on the Kingdom of St Penn website. And that website only uses stock images, and its main header image is of a private island. Not only that, but the Kingdom of St. Penn, the Organization For Human Rights Defence, the First Republic Registrar and a particularly weird site with some serious cult vibes, the Dynasitc Order of Saint Miriam, are all hosted on what seems to be a private server located in Amsterdam.

“When I was checking those out, they all came down to the same IP address,” says the web consultant, who requested anonymity in order to stay off the radar of any unscrupulous online actors. “If they were random disconnected sites, the likelihood of that is infinitesimally small for two of them. Nevermind three.” It was the consultant who found the fourth site, the cult vibes one, on the same IP address.

On the ground in London

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The Coast
Inside Moneypenny Workhub on Wenlock Road, the registered address of the UNDSMA.

One of the people The Coast was trying to reach was a man named Byron Byrd. He and Pamela Byrd are listed as the only directors on the UNDSMA’sEnglish business registration. An interesting thing about the address of this purported United Nations department—20-22 Wenlock Road, London, England, N1 7GU—is that it is shared office space, a British We Work. Among the services Made Simple, the shared office space company, provides is allowing other companies to register their address as 20-22 Wenlock Road, London, England, N1 7GU when they register as a business.

So we sent our friend in London, Dylan Furdyk, to check out Moneypenny Workhub, Made Simple’s office on Wenlock Road. She told the woman at the front desk, Francesca, that she was looking for Byron Byrd. “This is a shell office for a thousand companies,” Francesca says. “He might be registered here but not based here.”

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The Coast
The Coast's London correspondent, Dylan Furdyk.

Furdyk asked about Byrd’s company, calling it by its registered name, the United Nations Department of Sports, Music and the Arts. “It doesn’t seem like that kind of thing would be with us,” Francesca replied. But it was. Francesca confirmed that the UNDSMA was registered at the British We Work, and explained that the company is only registered at the address for government mail. The UNDSMA doesn’t actually rent office space.

The Wenlock Road address has been involved in many fraudulent schemes. It is also listed in the Paradise Papers 10 times. Does that mean the UNDSMA is also nefarious for sharing the shared address? Absolutely not.

But it is another sketchy coincidence.

Is there a grift?

We don’t know. And we can’t know until this operation gets up and running—if it does. Leighton has been adamant that the UNDSMA is a legitimate force for good.

In conversations with the media people in the United Nations secretary general’s office, every single one of them says the UNDSMA website is not legit. Some spokespeople offered explanations. One says the UN is easy for people to use in scams because of its sprawling global reach and easily accessible and identifiable logos. Another person simply says it’s common. Which probably explains why the UN has an FAQ about the most common scams committed by people using its name or likeness.

Leighton tells The Coast he is “the visionary behind the UN Sports Music and the Arts, the Department of Sports Music and the Arts.” But is for some reason not listed as an officer of the organization. He explains UNDSMA’s authority actually comes through the United Nations Economic and Social Council. He says that is a partner NGO, and that’s why the people we are talking to at the UN have never heard of him.

Being a partner NGO with ECOSOC is a real thing.

The Coast asked Leighton when and how the UNDSMA became a partner NGO. Leighton says it became one in February, 2022. ECOSOC says NGOs can only become partners in the annual window if they apply by June 1, and those applications are reviewed, and approved, in June and July.

The Coast asked Leighton when and how the UNDSMA has to report to ECOSOC. Leighton says it reports to the director. But ECOSOC requires partner NGOs to report every four years through this website.

Leighton assured The Coast that ECOSOC could absolutely verify his organization, even though the UNDSMA is not on its 2018 list of partner NGOs and can’t be found in the online searchable database.

In an email, ECOSOC’s NGO branch wrote: “We can confirm that the organization you mention is not in status.”

When confronted with this information, Leighton, who has previously identified himself as a director of and visionary behind the UNDSMA, says “well look, I’m not the one in charge of this thing.”

The tangled webs we weave

In 2007, the World Intellectual Property Organization heard a case involving the domain names and Pelé, for those who don’t know, is one of the best soccer players of all time. Both of these sites were owned by Steve Leighton. And in that precedent-setting case, Leighton was the respondent. He was being accused of deliberately running misleading websites to capitalize on Pelé’s name, without permission from Pelé.

Leighton promised the panel that Pelé was absolutely on board, and he could go to Pelé and get a bunch of stuff proving Pelé was super okay with Leighton owning and using the domains. How did that work out?

Past wrongdoing does not mean there is wrongdoing today. After all, people have the capacity to change, especially after they make a mistake. But there are two striking similarities. In 2007: “The Panel finds that each of the Domain Names is confusingly similar to a trade mark in which the Complainant has rights.” In 2022 it’s the UN.

In 2022 The Coast was looking for verification that Leighton’s proof was legit. In 2007 the WIPO decision reads: “The promised verificatory letter from Pele did not arrive.”

Exit the rabbit hole

For all our research into the UNDSMA, we have not been able to identify any victims of a scam. Or any point to this organization. But there is a crypto connection.

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The UNDSMA's page on the PEACE Crypto Xperience.

Leighton explains the model is to trade a non-currency crypto coin for donations to the UNDSMA. With this coin people can go on the exchange and trade their token for sports memorabilia. It allows people to get something for donating.

Where the rubber meets the road on whether this is a legit charity or a scam will depend entirely on what the UNDSMA does with any money it raises by selling peace coins. If the money goes to charitable causes, it’s a charity. If it disappears, it’s a scam.

It’s also possible the goal is that weird charity-scam middleground as popularized by the Susan G. Komen breast cancer awareness charity. Where a charity takes in a lot of money and then spends most of it on itself and tooting its own horn, rather than on the charitable causes it exists to support. The Komen organization only got into hot water because its donations and spending were done in a real world tangible currency. Through financial institutions and a taxation framework regulated by the government. Crypto has no such red tape.

But then again, this is real life. As much as we may crave a story with a plot, main characters and motives that make sense—humans just do stuff. Like, all the time.

We don’t know for sure what Leighton is doing or why. And to be honest, we likely never will. We can only say with varying degrees of certainty what he is *not* doing. And he doesn’t seem to be doing anything with the Titanic. So this is a rabbit hole we are getting out of, leaving us back where this journalism journey started.

Our Titanic experience

We don’t know why Squires posted what he did to LinkedIn. We can’t explain why Squires would be so gung-ho for Titanic project media coverage one day, and aghast at the thought the next. Although, what most of us know from personal experience is the emotional roller coaster attached to the cliche “you reap what you sow.” It is something we have all done, and experienced at some point in our lives.

We’d like to say we don’t know why Nova Scotia’s “paper of record” would herald such a wild chronicle without due diligence. But we do, actually. They need content. Everyone in media needs a lot of content. Sometimes people get lazy. It happens.

What makes less sense is what the Herald’s done since then. It is genuinely weird to hear Herald columnist Sheldon MacLeod use the paper’s fifth (!) story on the Titanic situation to complain that its *fourth* Titanic story wouldn’t get the attention it deserved for finally reporting accurate details, because “another outlet” “claimed they had done enough sleuthing” and “that story did get kind of way more attention than it should have.”

Although to MacLeod’s credit, that segment does end with two good points. First, Aaron Beswick’s reporting will not get the attention it deserves, because it’s clouded by his employer’s editorial decision-making.

And second, he’s right: “You will not believe what happened after a Titanic story went viral.” We sent someone (who was already in London and wanted to do it anyway) to investigate a business in London! We called the UN! This was the wildest week of journalism of our lives! Thanks for joining us on this adventure. We hope it was a more enjoyable journey than the White Star Line provided that one time.

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The Coast
Coast reporters Kaija Jussinoja and Matt Stickland consult the mind map. The Coast blurred some information unrelated to the story.

Kaija Jussinoja

Kaija Jussinoja was a news reporter at The Coast, where she covered the stories that make Halifax the weird and wonderful place we call home. She is originally from North Vancouver, BC and graduated from the University of King’s College in 2022. Jussinoja joined The Coast in May 2022 after interning at The Chronicle...

Matt Stickland

Matt spent 10 years in the Navy where he deployed to Libya with HMCS Charlottetown and then became a submariner until ‘retiring’ in 2018. In 2019 he completed his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College. Matt is an almost award winning opinion writer.
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