BC Lottery Corp. didn’t block mysterious casino cash due to ‘hundreds of millions’ in estimated losses: inquiry

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The Cullen Commission into money laundering in B.C. has heard that a program - which was eventually rejected - to control the source of high-roller money in casinos would have cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars. John Hua reports – Jan 29, 2021

The CEO of the BC Lottery Corporation did not follow a direction from the provincial government in 2015 to refuse mysterious cash transactions from foreign high rollers because he concluded it would lead to losses of hundreds of millions each year, a public inquiry into money laundering heard.

In August 2015 — after B.C.’s government learned of a major RCMP organized crime investigation at Richmond’s River Rock Casino — then-gaming minister Mike de Jong sent a letter to CEO Jim Lightbody directing the Lottery Corp. to ask high rollers to declare their source of cash, a B.C. government lawyer told the Cullen Commission Friday.

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The commission — which is mandated to determine whether corruption allowed money laundering to take root in B.C. casinos — has heard that the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch concluded that after 2010, suspicious cash transactions via Asian gangs and loan sharks and Chinese high rollers were growing exponentially, and that in 2014, suspected drug-money laundering in B.C. casinos was forecast to reach about $200 million per year.

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And the Lottery Corp. was alerted with an internal investigation report in 2014 that said most Chinese VIPs paid cash that had been borrowed from loan-sharking gangs in Richmond back in China.

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On Friday, government lawyer Kaitlyn Chewka read minutes from an October 2015 Lottery Corp. board meeting where Lightbody and board chair Bud Smith discussed the impacts of de Jong’s August 2015 direction to source funds from high rollers.

The board’s response was discussed “given management estimates the effect of the direction for BCLC if fully implemented would be hundreds of millions of dollars,” meeting minutes said, according to Chewka.

The Lottery Corp. didn’t require high rollers who were bringing large amounts of cash into casinos to declare their source of funds until January 2018, after an independent review into money laundering at B.C. casinos made the recommendation.

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The inquiry heard that throughout 2015 and 2016, the enforcement branch’s general manager, John Mazure, also repeatedly directed Lightbody to do more to understand the origins of massive cash transactions flooding into several B.C. casinos, as well as the foreign high-rollers presenting the cash and their sources of wealth.

“Mr. Lightbody, I put it to you: The reason why (BC Lottery Corp.) didn’t put in place a general source (of funds) requirement sooner is, it would result in a loss of revenue,” Chewka said. “Would you agree with me?”

Lightbody said he never understood directions from de Jong or Mazure to be asking the Crown corporation to apply source of funds declarations across the board. Instead, it decided to vet dozens of high rollers that it had concluded were connected to organized crime or were high risks for money laundering, Lightbody said.

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And, he testified, he established with de Jong’s deputy minister, Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland, that de Jong “didn’t mean all cash transactions” needed a declaration on source of funds. Lightbody supported his claim with an undated note from his personal log, the inquiry heard.

However, the inquiry has heard that Mazure complained that Lightbody was refusing to follow the branch’s anti-money laundering directions.

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Former branch investigator Rob Barber told the inquiry previously that in a meeting in late 2015 or early 2016, Mazure implored Wenezenki-Yolland to intervene.

“Mr. Mazure was stating to the room as a whole that BC Lottery Corp. would not listen to him … and he was frustrated,” Barber testified.

“He was trying to address the dirty money issue and in front of all of us, he verbally reached out to (Wenezenki-Yolland) and asked for her assistance in the matter. And her response was along the lines of … ‘You’ll have to deal with it.'”

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Lightbody was also cross-examined by the lawyer for Paul King Jin, the alleged organized crime suspect leading a network that funded most of the Chinese high rollers connected to suspicious cash at River Rock Casino, the inquiry has heard.

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Jin’s lawyer, Greg DelBigio, asked Lightbody why he didn’t simply crack down on cash transactions.

“If you don’t want dirty money coming into a casino, ban cash,” DelBigio said. “Isn’t it that simple?”

Lightbody said the issue of anti-money laundering is more complex and that criminals always look for ways around regulations.

“Compliance always trumped revenue,” Lightbody said.

Lightbody had testified a day earlier that an “influx” of wealthy gamblers from China and Hong Kong arrived in Vancouver after the 2010 Winter Olympics, and that Lottery Corp. did not know where they obtained duffel bags of $20 bills bundled in elastic bands which they used to buy casino chips.

But he told commission lawyer Patrick McGowan that the Lottery Corp. compliance team did “everything in our power” to mitigate risks surrounding the mysterious cash.

And in September 2015, he testified, he asked senior B.C. officials whether the corporation should reduce or eliminate the “high-limit” baccarat games that had been raised to limits of $100,000 per hand in 2014, in order to cater to Chinese VIPs.

He said he was told that the BC Liberal minister responsible at the time, Mike de Jong, “would deal with this from an enforcement side.”

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Read more: Gangs made B.C. casinos too dangerous to investigate for money laundering, inquiry hears

In his closing statement, Lightbody claimed that his investigative team interviewed a number of high rollers at the River Rock in September 2015, after the Lottery Corp. learned of the RCMP’s major money-laundering investigation into Jin and VIPs at the casino.

According to Lightbody, Great Canadian Gaming president Rod Baker complained that interviews were scaring the casino’s VIPs away, and he asked Lightbody to stop hurting the River Rock’s business.

Lightbody said he sent an email to Baker, refusing to call off the interviews.

The inquiry has also heard that Baker complained to the Lottery Corp. about VIP interviews in 2012 as well, and that investigators were directed not to approach River Rock high rollers.

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