Explainer: What’s new in B.C.’s money laundering commission

The Cullen Commission is holding hearings with former political leaders and witnesses until May 14

Former Ministers Mike De Jong and Rich Coleman, and former Premier Christy Clark. (Flickr/ Province of British Columbia)

Over the last month, former B.C. Premier Christy Clark and former Ministers Mike De Jong and Rich Coleman have spoken at hearings with the Cullen Commission, a team investigating the systemic reasons behind the rise of money laundering in B.C. casinos over the past two decades.

Clark, who was premier of the province from 2011 to 2017, told the commission on April 20 that she wasn’t aware of the issue until 2015.

She testified to answer the Commission’s inquiry into how much she knew about the increasing amount of suspected drug cash going into B.C. casinos if she recognized the money was increasing government revenue, and if she made any attempts to intervene.

Throughout her testimony, Clark said her government acted quickly during her time in office. They placed a report titled Province Strengthening Anti-Money Laundering at Casinos in 2011 that suggested changes to anti-money laundering strategies, including creating a task force investigating suspicious activities and transactions at B.C. casinos.

“The idea was never to try and get revenue at the expense of public safety or public confidence in our casino system. Stopping crime, money laundering, was always a primary concern way over and above the revenue that came from B.C. lotteries,” said Clark.

However, the former head of the RCMP Integrated Proceeds of Crime Unit, Barry Baxter said there was no political will to stop the money flowing into the casinos.

On April 8, Baxter told the Cullen Commission that when he took command in 2010, he didn’t doubt that organized crime groups were laundering money through casinos.

In 2013, the unit was split up, and the casino money laundering investigation was dropped, and the RCMP’s priority shifted to addressing terrorism and national security.

“The ability to move those large amounts of cash into the casino remained right up until the day I left and I know it continues on,” said Baxter. “The casinos run on profits, and provincially those profits generate revenue for the province because they’re here, and I just don’t think that BCLC agreed that this was money laundering.”

From 2013 to 2017, De Jong was the minister responsible for gaming. De Jong told the Commission on April 23 that generating higher gaming profits at the British Columbia Lottery Corporation didn’t place priority on concerns of money laundering at casinos.

De Jong said serious efforts were made to understand and address the issue of money laundering and that he was unaware of times where people failed to interfere.

He said he realized the severity of the issue in 2015 when large amounts of cash were seen moving through casinos and knew more needed to be done to address the issue. Government documents showed that between 2014 and 2015, more than $176 million was laundered through B.C. casinos.

“It has been very frustrating to, candidly, hear commentary that the government was disinterested in the subject, or the minister responsible was disinterested in the subject of anti-money laundering because fiscal considerations took precedence, and that’s just not true,” he said.

Former Liberal solicitor general Rich Coleman spoke at a hearing on Wednesday. He was responsible for gaming on and off from 2001 to 2013. Coleman said he never asked for the job and his portfolio kept following him around.

During Coleman’s four-hour testimony, he said when he came to office in 2001, money laundering wasn’t considered a major issue, as loan sharks and vehicle thefts in parking lots were top concerns for the province.

“I never saw any attitude within the government that you need to let questionable money flow into any aspect of government,” Coleman said to Brock Martland, a member of the Commission.

B.C. gave the Commission an extension in March to complete its final report, which is now due on Dec. 15.