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Ontario faces calls to investigate money laundering at provincial casinos

Suspicious cash transactions at Ontario casinos spike after crackdown at B.C. casinos
WATCH: A Global News exclusive investigation has obtained documents revealing the number of investigations into suspicious cash in Ontario casinos more than doubled in 2018.

Ontario’s New Democrats are calling on Premier Doug Ford to investigate the rising number of suspicious cash transactions at casinos across the province following a Global News investigation.

Data obtained exclusively by Global News showed suspicious cash investigations by Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) at casinos jumped from 945 in 2017 to 2,266 in 2018 — a roughly 140 per cent increase.

READ MORE: Money laundering in Ontario: Suspicious cash transactions spike after B.C. casino crackdown

The data, obtained under freedom of information laws, show suspicious transaction investigations, which include potential money laundering, continued to trend higher in 2019, with 1,327 investigations in the first seven months of the year.

Taras Natyshak, NDP critic for ethics and accountability, called on the Ford government “to shine a light” on what’s happening inside casinos and “take concrete steps to protect Ontario from being used by criminals as a laundromat for dirty money.”

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“Something stinks, and it would be wrong for Doug Ford to look the other way when we saw what happened in B.C. before it got serious about cracking down on money laundering,” Natyshak said in a statement.

How suspects can launder dirty money in casinos through ‘refining’ transactions
How suspects can launder dirty money in casinos through ‘refining’ transactions

“We don’t want criminals who faced a crackdown on money laundering in other provinces to see Ontario as a regulation-lite place where they can thrive.”

READ MORE: Ontario casino regulator probing whether B.C. casino staff were connected to money-laundering suspects

Global News asked for a comment from Ford’s office, which forwarded the request to the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

“Ontario takes the integrity of gaming seriously, which is why we have strong anti-money-laundering and fraud protection processes in place,” said MOF spokesperson Scott Blodgett.

He also said Ontario’s anti-money-laundering regulations are among the toughest in the country, adding that the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation are “continually looking at Ontario’s regulatory framework and how it can be improved.”

Asked if Ontario will investigate the spike in suspicious transactions, Blodgett said the government looks forward to working with federal and provincial counterparts to “combat any suspicious activity taking place in our gaming sites.”

Rise in investigations

The rise in suspicious cash transactions in Ontario came shortly after B.C. announced new restrictions in January 2018 to help stem reports of widespread money laundering at its casinos.

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“We have reduced it by a factor of 100,” B.C. Attorney General David Eby said at the time. “I believe that money has moved elsewhere.”

As B.C. cracks down on money laundering, Ontario casinos risk becoming ground zero
As B.C. cracks down on money laundering, Ontario casinos risk becoming ground zero

Canada’s leading financial crime experts told Global News that criminal networks may have shifted their focus to other regions in the country — including Ontario.

“The criminal networks involved haven’t been touched, and they are still selling their drugs and making their money,” said Calvin Chrustie, a former senior RCMP officer who targeted transnational organized crime groups in Vancouver and internationally. “Dirty money will find the cracks and flow to more vulnerable systems in Canada.”

READ MORE: B.C. disbanded RCMP unit after report warned possible crime figure bought stake in casino

B.C. is set to begin its inquiry on Feb. 24 into the extent of the province’s money-laundering problem, which has distorted the provincial housing market and contributed to the ongoing opioid crisis.

Some anti-money-laundering experts, including former RCMP senior officer Garry Clement, have said the Global News data investigation suggests a national money-laundering inquiry should occur because the crackdown in B.C. appears to have impacted other provinces.

Patrick McGowan, senior counsel for the Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in British Columbia, said the commission will review the results of the Global News investigation.

“Money laundering in British Columbia takes place in the broader national and international context,” McGowan said in an email. “The commission will review with interest the recent investigative findings of Global News and the evidence upon which those findings were based.”

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B.C. disbands RCMP unit after report warns possible crime figure bought stake in casino
B.C. disbands RCMP unit after report warns possible crime figure bought stake in casino

Exactly how much dirty money is being laundered through Ontario casinos is unknown. The issue made headlines last summer following the arrest of several people alleged to be members of an Italian organized crime group that police say laundered $70 million through casinos in just two years.

Chief Supt. Bill Price with the OPP’s dedicated casino investigations unit acknowledged that due to an intense spotlight and new restrictions in B.C. casinos, money launderers likely have shifted focus to Ontario casinos.

“Are we concerned about people from other jurisdictions coming here to infiltrate our casinos? Absolutely,” Price told Global News. “But we have a very good model in place to prevent that and disrupt that activity as much as possible.”

READ MORE: Not just B.C. — Most provinces in Canada fail to secure convictions in money-laundering cases

Price said the 140 per cent increase in suspicious transaction investigations is also due, in part, to more gambling in the Greater Toronto Area and the OPP’s increased scrutiny of that gambling.

“If you turn a slot facility into a full-blown casino with table games, there’s larger transactions that automatically occur that should generate suspicious transaction reports,” Price said. “Woodbine (casino) itself went from a slot facility to a full-blown casino. That changes the dynamics.”