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B.C. money-laundering commissioner rebukes Ottawa for failing to provide important records

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The federal government is failing in its obligation to provide important documents for B.C.’s provincial inquiry into money laundering, the inquiry’s commissioner says.

Austin Cullen issued his first interim report on Thursday, commenting on the inquiry’s mandate and evidence produced so far.

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He said the commissioner’s lawyers have established a good framework to probe money laundering in B.C., and that most of the parties with standing to testify in the hearings are co-operating.

But Cullen rebuked the federal government for obstructing commission lawyers’ attempts to access important records.

This is a problem, he said, because Ottawa controls a number of agencies with crucial roles in combatting money laundering, including the RCMP, Fintrac, Canada Revenue Agency, and the federal prosecution service.

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“One area of particular concern involves Canada’s compliance with its obligation to identify the nature and character of documents in its possession or control,” Cullen wrote. “Many federal agencies have been slow to comply with these obligations, and the lists that have been produced often appear to be incomplete.”

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He singled out Fintrac, the intelligence agency on anti-money laundering that’s controlled by the federal finance ministry.

“Fintrac’s initial list of documents was composed entirely of materials that were publicly available on its website, despite the fact that it generates a wide range of specialized strategic research for regime partners,” Cullen wrote. “When Commission counsel raised that point, Fintrac added a total of seven documents to its list and took the position that its document production obligations were complete.”

Another concern, he said, is that many documents provided by Ottawa “have been redacted to the point that they provide no meaningful information.”

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The inquiry has also not been allowed to interview federal prosecutors, he added.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby said he was “incredibly concerned” about Fintrac’s reported reticence to cooperate.

“I simply cannot understand why the federal government’s anti-money laundering agency that has a mandate to prevent (money laundering) is not falling over itself to provide information to the anti-money laundering inquiry.”

Fintrac has clearly been collecting data on large cash transactions, Eby said, and plays a key role in any response as it is responsible for connecting the dots between criminal organizations.

Eby said he’d spoken with federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who assured him he would seek better cooperation from the agency.

Cullen did not point to evidence heard in testimony so far, which has included allegations that senior B.C. officials turned a blind eye to organized crime laundering massive amounts of suspected drug cash, because money pouring into casinos through loan sharks was good for revenue.

The inquiry has also heard that B.C. government employees allowed so-called VIP high-rollers to “bend” Fintrac’s laws, because casino owners didn’t want to offend high-value customers.

And the vast majority of VIPs were Chinese nationals, the inquiry has heard, that gambled in B.C. government casinos with cash provided by loan sharks. These loans were repaid in China to organized crime, the inquiry has heard.

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And that means, that even if VIPs lost their bets, money was laundered for the loan sharks that provided them cash.

Cullen suggested he has already heard enough evidence to answer one of the basic questions his interim report had to address.

Is money laundering even a problem worth examining?

“Money laundering is an issue of great importance to the citizens of British Columbia,” Cullen wrote. “It is a crime that strikes at the heart of our collective values and corrupts the fabric of a free and democratic society.”

The inquiry will continue in 2021.