Former B.C. premier Christy Clark was pressed to answer in the province’s money laundering inquiry how much she knew about increasing volumes of suspected drug cash in B.C. casinos, whether she recognized this cash was boosting government revenue, and whether she did anything to intervene.
On Tuesday, Clark, who was premier from 2011 to 2017, was the first of a number of senior B.C. politicians scheduled to testify at the inquiry, which is mandated to determine whether governments, police and regulators failed to tackle money laundering as it took root in B.C.’s economy.
The Cullen Commission has previously heard that suspicious cash transactions driven by high rollers, transnational gangsters and underground bankers grew exponentially from 2010 in B.C. casinos, and that Rich Coleman, the former gaming minister, was directly warned of surging dirty-money concerns by his subordinates at the gaming regulator at a 2010 meeting.
By late 2014, these Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch investigators were forecasting that suspected drug-money laundering in B.C.’s casinos would reach $200 million per year.
But during her examination, Clark said it wasn’t until 2015, after her then-finance minister Mike de Jong took casinos over from Coleman, that she was directly informed of an “all-time high” spike in suspicious cash transactions. Within two weeks of de Jong’s report, Clark said, the pair worked together to implement the Joint Illegal Gaming Investigation Team, a special casino-crime police task force.
The commission has previously heard there had been a complete void for police enforcement in B.C. government casinos after 2009, when the BC Liberals and Coleman decided to disband a provincial anti-illegal gaming police unit.
Commission lawyer Patrick McGowan grilled Clark on whether she was aware from 2011 of increasingly urgent reports coming from the enforcement branch and casino surveillance units, showing that bags of $20 bills were being commonly used by high rollers to buy casino chips and that the cash was dropped off inside or near casinos.
“If you had been told that someone was dropping off a shopping bag at midnight containing $200,000 in $20 bills and that was being accepted by service providers, would that have been something you thought was appropriate?” McGowan asked Clark. “If your minister had told you that was happening, would you have raised some concern or intervened?”
“I can’t answer questions about what might have happened, but I can say we took significant actions,” Clark, who is now a senior adviser with business law firm Bennett Jones, said.
McGowan also asked if Clark was aware of her government’s decision to raise betting limits for baccarat high rollers to $100,000 per hand in 2013, even while the enforcement branch was escalating concerns that transnational gangs were using those players and B.C. casinos to launder cash.
Clark said she wasn’t aware of the decision.
“The idea was never to get revenue at the expense of public safety or public confidence in our casino system,” she said.
In one tense series of questions, McGowan repeatedly asked whether Clark had ever questioned whether the surging volumes of cash that had been reported to the BC Lottery Corporation as suspicious were accepted by B.C. casinos or refused. In fact, the vast majority of these suspicious transactions were accepted, McGowan noted.
“Did you ever inquire whether these funds were accepted by casinos and recorded as revenue for the province?” he asked.
“I think I already answered that question,” Clark said, while pointing to her decision to start the joint investigation team after 2015.
“You keep saying you have answered the question, and with respect, I don’t think you have,” McGowan shot back. “It’s a relatively simple one. Did you ask whether this money that was recorded as suspicious was accepted by casinos and ultimately gamed with, and contributed to the provincial revenue? Or (whether the cash was) refused? Did you make that inquiry?”
“I didn’t,” Clark said. “I knew that we were going to do what we did instead. Which was, we created (the joint team). If your question is, ‘Did I do something about it?’, my answer is yes.”
Clark said her government’s move to start the joint team after 2015 ultimately stemmed from a recommendation made in an anti-money laundering report that was completed for then-minister Coleman in 2011.
Coleman had called for the report, the inquiry has heard, after a series of media reports in 2011 that pointed to one RCMP officer’s concerns about massive and suspicious cash transactions in Vancouver-area casinos.
“Is there any reason if (the suspicious cash problem) was deemed urgent, why (implementing the team) couldn’t have been done in 2011 rather than 2015?” McGowan asked Clark.
She said she and de Jong moved with “lightning speed” to create the unit as soon as de Jong received a report showing suspicious cash spiking to an all-time high in B.C. Lottery Corp. casinos.
Meanwhile, McGowan and a lawyer for Transparency International Canada asked Clark whether her government had taken any actions to study whether money laundering could be inflating B.C. housing prices.
Clark said there had been no reason to because experts had informed her government that B.C.’s economic growth, low interest rates, and high rates of immigration were the cause of its surging real estate values, and not money laundering.
The hearings will continue, with de Jong scheduled to testify on Friday, and Coleman and current B.C. Attorney General David Eby scheduled the following week.