Whistleblower warned B.C. casino in 2000 of alleged ‘co-operation with organized crime’

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WATCH: After two decades, a B.C. casino supervisor is speaking out claiming she went to work each day in the mid-90s and early 2000s expecting to have to deal with organized crime. John Hua reports in part two of our exclusive casino diaries series – May 2, 2019

A Great Canadian Gaming employee who was concerned about workplace safety informed the company’s founder that she felt staff had to “accept doing business year after year with what most certainly appears to be some level of co-operation with organized crime,” according to documents obtained by Global News.

Former Great Canadian dealer supervisor Muriel Labine sent the complaint letters in January 2000 to the company’s founder and then-president, Ross McLeod.

McLeod’s responses acknowledged “potentially serious allegations in the Richmond casino” and claimed that senior management was working with the RCMP and B.C. Lottery Corporation in an ongoing investigation.

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In extensive interviews with Global News, Labine explained how she first noticed what she believed were loan sharks flooding the Richmond casino with suspicious cash after May 1997, when the NDP government first introduced baccarat and raised casino betting limits from $25 to $500.

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According to allegations in Labine’s records, some staff believed the dominant loan-sharking gang in the Richmond casino was the Big Circle Boys, a powerful, transnational heroin-trafficking cartel rooted in China, Macau and Hong Kong. The Big Circle Boys are the Asian organized crime kingpins, a Global News investigation has found, responsible for the so-called Vancouver Model of underground banking, which some police believe is driving Vancouver’s housing affordability and fentanyl overdose crisis.

With ties to Hong Kong underground banks and drug supply in Burma, the Big Circle Boys control North America’s heroin trade, according to federal records obtained by Global News. And now, with connections to officials and factories in China, they also dominate the illicit fentanyl trade, police sources say.

Labine said she and others made complaints about the Big Circle Boys to management.

But she alleges staff concerns about gangs — and suspected loan sharks that she called the “Boys” — were essentially brushed aside.

“By 2000, January, I knew that I was no longer wanting to work in this place, that I could no longer be part of money laundering,” Labine recalled. “So that’s when I wrote the letter to Ross McLeod and told him I wanted to leave, I would like a severance.”

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It was an extraordinary step, she says, for an employee to escalate a complaint to the company president.

“The ‘Boys’ were in the casino, by this point, for two and a half years,” Labine explained. “I had seen the casino was making a lot of money across the tables and I suspected it was drug money.”

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On Jan. 5, 2000, Labine wrote her first letter to McLeod.

“As you may know, I am currently on a medical stress leave from our Richmond location. In light of all the ongoing activities within our casino, from allegations of sexual harassment to what certainly appears to be illegal activities surround the various ‘gangs,’ I find it at this time very difficult to put myself in an environment which I consider to be unhealthy and unsafe,” the letter read.

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“I find it most unacceptable that I am put in a position by the company where I must accept doing business year after year with what most certainly appears to be some level of co-operation with organized crime.”

In a series of responses that January, McLeod asked that Labine provide specific details on “illegal activities surrounding the various ‘gangs’” and “whatever information you have with respect to levels of co-operation with organized crime.”

“I realize that your lack of knowledge and information of management and actions taken regarding possible criminal activities has given you the perception of a lack of commitment by the company to solve these problems,” a Jan. 13, 2000 response from McLeod states.

On Jan. 17, 2000, Labine responded: “(Some staff members) have kept notes over a considerable space of time. The incidents that we observed were not isolated but repetitive. They continued day after day, week after week and year after year. Money and chips changed between the ‘Boys’ and their clients repeatedly throughout day and night. These exchanges might be as low as a few hundred dollars to $10,000 in one transaction.”

Labine’s letter alleged that staff complaints “reporting this kind of activity resulted in variations of the theme, ‘How do we know they’re not friends?’ This was the standard retort. We reported suspicious activities repeatedly, and no action was taken.”

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“I spoke confidentially with various members of security who were also appalled with the situation, and they confided individually that we were dealing with more than one ‘family,’” Labine wrote. “The Big Circle Boys being one of the families.

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‘Suspected criminal activities’

About a month after Labine’s initial complaint, McLeod replied with a detailed response. The letter indicates McLeod had investigated Labine’s claims and spoken with Great Canadian’s then-VP Adrian Thomas, the manager who had previously handled Labine’s complaints.

“In your letter, you expressed difficulty in believing that I would not have been informed of what appeared to be illegal activity in our casinos,” McLeod wrote in February 2000. “To the contrary, I have been kept advised on the whole situation since its inception.”

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Contrary to Labine’s allegation that the company was ignoring her complaints, McLeod’s letter claims Labine and associated union organizers were informed multiple times that Great Canadian Gaming was “fully aware of the problem” and had “initiated contact with and worked with BCLC, RCMP and the Vancouver police since the beginning of suspected criminal activities.”

B.C.’s Ministry of the Attorney General says that it is not in a position to confirm either the investigation to which McLeod refers or Labine’s complaint.

“BCLC does not have investigations records relating to Richmond and the 1998-2000 time period referenced,” a statement from the B.C. Lottery Corporation said. “Therefore, we are unable to confirm, nor provide details of, any potential investigation as outlined in your request.”

Great Canadian Gaming would not respond to questions about the investigation cited in McLeod’s letter or Labine’s allegations. The RCMP also did not answer repeated requests for comment on the purported investigation.

The Labine documents could be problematic for the current NDP government because they suggest the government opened the gates to Macau-style casino money laundering in 1997 without having the proper regulatory structure or gambling laws in place.

“We cannot speculate on these allegations as (B.C.’s) Gaming Policy Enforcement Branch (GPEB) did not exist in 1997,” Liam Butler, a spokesman for B.C.’s Ministry of the Attorney General, said in response to questions for this story. GPEB was created in 2002 under new gaming laws, Butler said, and the B.C. Lottery Corporation took control of B.C. casinos in June 1998.

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“When these events allegedly occurred, gambling regulators primarily used paper records with unknown retention schedules,” Butler said.

Bet limits on baccarat — the game favoured in Macau casino money laundering — were raised repeatedly, starting at $500 per hand in 1997 and eventually growing to $100,000 per hand in 2014.

Union organization ‘extortion’

The February 2000 McLeod letter suggests Labine was driven by an agenda and that her allegations stemmed from a frustrated attempt at union organization. The letter says a B.C. Government Employees Union representative had informed a lawyer for Great Canadian that according to Labine, the Richmond casino manager Thomas had told her to “leave it alone” when she complained about gang activity.

McLeod’s letter, though, says Labine took the conversation with Thomas out of context and omitted the most important point: that Great Canadian was aware of and investigating suspected problems in the casino.

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McLeod’s letter alleged that in multiple conversations between the BCGEU representative and Great Canadian labour lawyer, “it was strongly suggested by the union representative that Mr. Thomas and thereby the company should issue voluntary recognition to the BCGEU rather than have the issue of ‘loan sharking’ and ‘money laundering’ appear in the media.”

“A total of four telephone conversations were transcribed and reviewed by lawyers who viewed the contents to be possible extortion,” McLeod’s letter alleges.

The issue culminated in a March 19, 1999 meeting at Great Canadian head offices involving two union representatives, the Great Canadian lawyer and Thomas, according to the letter.

“In the meeting, Thomas asked (the union representative): ‘If we voluntarily recognize you, does this (expletive) about the crime stuff go away?’” McLeod’s letter claims. “(The union representative) immediately answered yes.”

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Great Canadian Gaming would not comment on McLeod’s letter or this allegation. In an interview, Thomas maintained that he believed the union representatives tried to extort Great Canadian.

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“They were going to take it to the Richmond Review,” Thomas said. “And I said: ‘You are perfectly entitled to do that, but I tell you what, you’ll get your a** sued off.’”

Thomas reiterated that he believes Labine “hated” him and had an agenda against the company because she was denied a promotion to head office, and her efforts to organize a union at the Richmond casino failed. This is the reason, according to Thomas, that Labine has twisted the truth. Labine, however, insists she is coming forward 20 years later with nothing to gain other than holding B.C.’s government to account and telling the truth.

In a statement to Global News, BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said she was with the union in March 1999 and that she was aware of the effort to organize the Richmond casino. But she was not involved in the campaign, Smith said, and could not corroborate the events that McLeod’s letter alleged.

“Unfortunately, I also can’t dispute it with documentary evidence — none of the individuals named work for the BCGEU currently, and according to our record management policies, we destroy documents after seven years unless there is a specific reason to retain them,” Smith’s statement said.

However, Smith stated: “The alleged behaviour is entirely inconsistent with my experience as a front-line activist … (and) would have been then — and would be now — utterly antithetical to the goals and objectives of any BCGEU organizing team.”

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Smith said the information in McLeod’s letter underlines the BCGEU’s current position calling for a public inquiry into B.C.’s money-laundering scandal.

“What the letter does highlight is the long history of criminal activity — specifically, money laundering — in casinos, the very real threat that activity presented (and continues to present) for front-line casino workers,” Smith stated. “British Columbians deserve to know everything there is to know about that history, including how it has shaped our province’s current situation and how we protect ourselves moving forward.

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Company acted appropriately

McLeod’s February 2000 letter concludes by informing Labine that since 1998, Great Canadian had banned, or caused B.C. Lottery Corporation to ban, 28 people “considered to be conducting non-gaming business in our locations.” Great Canadian Gaming knew of no casino staff harmed by the people Labine referred to as the “Boys,” according to McLeod.

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“Ms. Labine, I am satisfied that senior management of Great Canadian Gaming have been aware of and have reacted positively to the situation you refer to as criminal activity.”

At this point, Labine says she ended her correspondence with McLeod.

“McLeod admitted, in that letter, that he had been aware of the situation since the very beginning,” Labine said in an interview. “The ‘Boys’ kept coming in, we kept doing business, that was it. The staff were put in a position where you had to smile and be nice to these gangsters.”

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