Commissioner Austin Cullen looks at documents before opening statements at the Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in British Columbia, in Vancouver on February 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Commissioner Austin Cullen looks at documents before opening statements at the Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in British Columbia, in Vancouver on February 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

RCMP lacked dedicated team to investigate illegal activities at casino, inquiry hears

Hearings for the inquiry are set to continue into next week and the inquiry is expected to wrap up next year

The inquiry into money laundering in B.C. has heard the RCMP didn’t have the resources to investigate illegal activities at the province’s largest casino, while the B.C. Lottery Corp. didn’t have the authority to crack down on suspicious transactions.

Ward Clapham, the former officer-in-charge of the Richmond RCMP detachment, said he tried twice to establish a new unit linked to the River Rock Casino but his requests were denied by the city.

He told the inquiry on Wednesdayhe needed the city’s approval to create the “casino crime team,” but general duty front-line officers were a higher priority for Richmond than gaming.

He said he pushed for a specialized team until he left the RCMP in 2008, but the support never materialized despite the expansion of illegal gaming activities in B.C. throughout the early 2000s.

Clapham’s request for funding to support such a team “caused significant friction,” he added.

He said no other RCMP detachment was facing the kind of challenges they were facing with gaming activities and day-to-day policing in Richmond, which does not have its own municipal force.

Clapham also agreed that the increase in gaming brought “social costs,” including serious crimes in the city.

“That whole panacea of crime includes front-line policing responsibilities like, you know, missing people, potential homicides (and) kidnappings that can be directly or indirectly related to gaming issues, to actual illegal gaming activities or crimes like money laundering” or loan sharking, he said.

The provincial government launched the inquiry after commissioning reports that outlined how money laundering was affecting real estate and housing affordability, luxury car sales and gambling in B.C.

Clapham said he hoped that some revenue from gaming would be allocated to the proposed specialized unit, but he wasn’t able to convince Richmond’s leaders that that was the way to go.

The inquiry also heard an integrated illegal gaming enforcement team was established in 2003, including Mounties and B.C.’s gaming policy and enforcement branch, but it was disbanded in 2009.

Gord Friesen, a former Mountie and former manager of investigations for the B.C. Lottery Corp., said he didn’t have the authority to stop a transaction without proof the money was the proceeds of crime.

“If $200,000 in $20 bills wrapped in elastic bands was dropped off to somebody in a parking lot outside the casino and tendered at the cash cage, would that be a sufficiently suspicious transaction to warrant intervention?” asked Patrick McGowan, senior counsel for the inquiry commission.

It would be suspicious and reportable, replied Friesen, but such a transaction would not have been stopped without evidence that a crime was being committed.

Friesen estimated that when he first started at the River Rock, investigators with the lottery corporation made around five to 10 reports of such suspicious transactions each week.

He said the reports were made to Fintrac, Canada’s financial transactions reporting centre, as well as B.C.’s gaming policy and enforcement branch and various departments within the RCMP.

Suspicious transactions increased over time, said Friesen, and the reports grew to around 25 a week.

Asked how many times someone was arrested for money laundering or loan sharking in the casino, he said, “it wasn’t a lot.”

The B.C. Lottery Corp. did not have the authority to dictate how much or in what form casinos could accept money as buy-ins for gaming, Friesen added.

He said the corporation was in “constant negotiations” with the gaming policy and enforcement branch to find alternatives to cash transactions.

Friesen said there was room for improvement in the lottery corporation’s anti-money laundering efforts, but “as part of the tools that we had to deter this type of thing, I think we did a very good job.”

Confronted with the fact that large, suspicious transactions were increasing significantly year over year, Friesen said, “we needed assistance and we weren’t getting assistance.”

The inquiry heard earlier this week that transactions involving as much as $800,000 were common at River Rock starting around 2010 as players hauled in bags and suitcases full of cash, often in $20 bills.

Hearings for the inquiry are set to continue into next week and the inquiry is expected to wrap up next year.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

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