The B.C. government has called a public inquiry into money laundering in the province’s economy.
Premier John Horgan announced Wednesday his government has decided to use the public inquiry to get to the bottom of how money laundering has seeped into the housing market, luxury car market, and casinos.
“From day one, our government has been working to tackle the housing crisis and fraud that went unchecked for over a decade, hurting people and B.C.’s economy,” Horgan said.
WATCH: B.C. Premier John Horgan announces money laundering public inquiry
“We have taken decisive actions to combat money laundering, but questions remain and people in B.C. deserve answers.”
The provincial cabinet has been grappling with the decision following the submission of the Peter German report and the Maureen Maloney report looking into money laundering in the housing market.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin F. Cullen has been appointed to head the inquiry. Cullen was appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court in 2001 and has had a long legal career in British Columbia.
WATCH: Money laundering investigation will go back as far as needed — Horgan
Cullen will examine regulatory authorities and barriers to effective law enforcement of money-laundering activities. He will have the ability to compel witnesses and order disclosure.
“This inquiry will bring answers about who knew what when and who is profiting from money laundering in our province,” Attorney General David Eby said.
“The Honourable Justice Cullen will have the mandate, authority and resources to seek answers, perhaps most importantly among people and organizations who refuse to share what they know unless legally compelled to do so.”
Eby says B.C. has received full co-operation from the federal government and that is important because of the involvement of the RCMP and overseeing bodies like FINTRAC.
Cullen can look back as far as he would like to figure out how widespread money laundering in the province started.
WATCH: Whistleblowers who spoke to Global News about alleged money laundering in B.C. speak out again
“I believe that British Columbians want to know how this was allowed to happen in British Columbia. The commissioner is not confined in his timelines. He can go back as far as he needs to to get answers for British Columbians,” Horgan said.
“This is about getting accountability.”
Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West and Vancouver Coun. Christine Boyle have been leading the way politically for the inquiry.
WATCH: B.C. government announces public inquiry into money laundering
Weaver says a public inquiry removes the investigation from partisan influence, protects the public interest and restores public trust.
“Our caucus supports this inquiry and stresses that it must be fully empowered under the Public Inquiry Act and without arbitrary limits imposed on the time period to be examined,” Weaver said.
“This process must be transparent whenever possible throughout the proceedings, and the findings and recommendations must be released in a timely manner. The financial impact and human costs money laundering has had, and continues to have, on our province’s housing and opioid crises is staggering. British Columbians deserve no less than a full and complete account of how it was allowed to go on for so long and reach the scale that it did.”
The B.C. Liberals are welcoming the public inquiry. Former solicitor general and current MLA Rich Coleman says that if asked, he will testify before the inquiry.
Coleman says he put legislation in place that made the minister at arm’s length from gaming decisions. But the former minister acknowledges he won’t be able to speak about investigations that happened and still may be going on.
“I’m quite happy there is an inquiry. We can finally get past the innuendo and accusations and get down to the facts,” Coleman said.
Maloney’s report released last week revealed that $5 billion was funnelled through B.C.’s real estate market last year, driving already sky-high home prices up by at least five per cent. The B.C. government based its decision to call the inquiry on those reports.
WATCH: B.C. mayor Brad West calls for public inquiry into money laundering
Including luxury cars and horse racing, the report estimated $7.4 billion was laundered through B.C. in 2018.
“We need to get this issue out of the hands of the politicians and into the hands of a public inquiry so we can put an end to this nightmare that has been inflicting our province for far too long,” West said.
The two reports were commissioned in September 2018 following widespread concern about B.C.’s reputation as a haven for money laundering.
WATCH: NDP launches public inquiry into money laundering
One of the criticisms of German’s reports is that blame has not been placed on anyone. A public inquiry will give the commissioner the power to name names and point fingers.
Criminal charges cannot stem from an inquiry, but an inquiry can lead to further investigations that lead to charges.
“It does not lay criminal charges, although it can refer matters to government for criminal or regulatory investigations,” German wrote in his latest report.
Both German reports revealed a huge number of loopholes that criminals have been using in order to launder money. Underground banking, private mortgages, minimal transparency on cash transactions and the use of numbered companies have all been used to move cash illegally with minimal detection.
How we got here
Global News reported on diaries from Muriel Labine, a former employee of the Great Canadian Gaming casino in Richmond, B.C. She was a dealer supervisor, monitoring the integrity of the gambling happening around her, and had hoped to work for Great Canadian until she retired.
Labine says that in May 1997, following the NDP government increasing bet limits from $25 to $500 per hand, there was a marked increase in VIP gamblers and high rollers coming into the casinos.
Current NDP Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth was the minister in charge of gaming in 1997.
WATCH: Timeline of money laundering in B.C. casinos
“One of the reasons changes were taking place was because so many people were going to Washington state to play. And it was, obviously, you know, we want to keep them,” Farnworth said earlier this month.
“At that time, we put in place the regulations that we felt were appropriate based on the best advice that we had at that time. Do I have a responsibility for those? Absolutely.”
Global News obtained a study of more than 1,200 luxury real estate purchases in B.C.’s Lower Mainland in 2016 and found that more than 10 per cent were tied to buyers with criminal records. Ninety-five per cent of those transactions were believed by police intelligence to be linked to Chinese crime networks.
While the study only looked at property purchases in 2016, an analysis by Global News suggests the same extended crime network may have laundered about $5 billion in Vancouver-area homes since 2012.
A majority of British Columbians are in favour of the public inquiry. In February, Ipsos Public Affairs, on behalf of Global News, produced a poll finding a vast majority of respondents were in favour of the inquiry.
The public has a thirst for holding people accountable. Many fingers have been pointed at the B.C. Liberals and decisions made by the previous government.
The former head of B.C.’s Integrated Illegal Gambling Enforcement Team (IIGET) says the former provincial government didn’t crack down on money laundering in casinos because they didn’t want to disrupt the flow of money.
Speaking to Global News last year, Fred Pinnock said the B.C. Liberals were well aware of what was going on in casinos.
“Fault lies at the feet of the B.C. Liberals while they were in government and senior management of the RCMP in this province,” Pinnock said at the time.
The public inquiry will help determine the validity of previous decisions.
When asked directly about Coleman’s remark that the B.C. Liberals followed the RCMP’s lead and didn’t want to “compromise any investigations,” Pinnock said he wasn’t going to comment “on any statements attributed to any individuals.”
“But I will say I know I was complained about by government for my strident views in terms of casinos and what was going on,” Pinnock said last year. “And I do know that a senior member, in 2011, was muzzled by the RCMP as a result of a complaint from government one year before the contract was up for renewal and I think there’s a connection between those … events.”
Coleman has always rejected the idea his government was “addicted” to casino profits. He also rejects the notion that the government held any influence over B.C. RCMP decision-making because of the pending renewal of the provincial policing contract. The contract was ultimately renewed by the former government.
But there could be more. The provincial government says an inquiry could lead to discovering other ways money has been laundered and provide potential solutions on how to stop it.
A public inquiry will also provide the government access to documents that normally could not be accessed.
In August, Eby started asking for B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson’s help to waive cabinet privilege on documents from the previous government related to money laundering. The current government is still waiting.
A public inquiry could give the inquiry commission access to those documents and would allow the public to judge whether the previous government made the correct decisions.
More to come.
—With files from Sam Cooper and John Hua