Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Ottawa pledges to participate in B.C. money-laundering public inquiry

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The federal government will “fully” participate and co-operate with a B.C. money-laundering public inquiry, says Bill Blair, the federal minister responsible for organized crime reduction.

The inquiry, which will be headed by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin F. Cullen, was announced Wednesday by B.C. Premier John Horgan. Cullen has two years to deliver a final report, just months before the next provincial election.

Blair, who had spoken to both the premier and B.C. Attorney General David Eby about their consideration to hold a public inquiry into money laundering, said joining the inquiry was not considered by Ottawa.

“But certainly we are absolutely committed to participating and co-operating fully with the work that will be done in B.C.,” Blair told Postmedia on Thursday.

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Asked if federal officials will testify at the public inquiry if requested to do so, Blair said: “Yes, of course.”

That includes officials with Canada’s financial intelligence agency, Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre (Fintrac), as well as the RCMP, Blair confirmed.

The caveat to any testimony or information provided is that federal officials will not be able to provide information that would compromise any ongoing investigations or prosecutions, he said.

“But at the same time, I think there will be lots of information that we will be able to share and to learn from,” added Blair.

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The federal government’s position appears to address concerns from some political observers that it may be difficult to get answers from federal officials.

In reference to joining B.C.’s public inquiry, Blair said he did not want to wait two years to take action on money laundering. He said Ottawa has taken significant steps already and would continue to do so in partnership with B.C. and other provinces. Among its initiatives, the federal Liberal government has added $70 million over five years to create a money-laundering task force, increase expertise in trade-based money laundering, and support financial intelligence gathering. The B.C. government is also already taking steps to reduce money laundering.

On Thursday, the RCMP also said it is ready to participate in B.C.’s public inquiry.

“The RCMP is currently reviewing the terms of reference for the inquiry so that it may respond quickly and appropriately to any direction issued by Commissioner Cullen,” said Dawn Roberts, director in charge of B.C. RCMP communications, in a written response.

The B.C. NDP government has given the inquiry a broad scope that includes money laundering in real estate, gambling and financial institutions. Cullen will also examine regulatory authorities and barriers to effective law enforcement of money laundering.

The inquiry comes after reports commissioned for the B.C. government by a former deputy RCMP commissioner, Peter German, and an expert panel led by a Simon Fraser University public policy professor, Maureen Maloney.

The report said money laundering was taking place in Lower Mainland casinos and in B.C.’s real estate and luxury car sectors. The expert panel estimated money laundering in B.C. at $7.4 billion in 2018. Somewhere between $800 million and $5.3 billion could have been laundered through real estate, the expert panel determined, depending on the method used to make the estimate. The panel said money laundering may have affected house prices by five per cent, possibly more in the Lower Mainland.

Money laundering has been under a spotlight in B.C., a result of revelations uncovered in a Postmedia investigation in 2017 that found potentially millions of dollars were being laundered through Lower Mainland casinos.

A separate Postmedia investigation, published in February, found that money-laundering prosecutions were rare and difficult in B.C.

Multiple police investigations with ties to money laundering since 2015 had resulted in at least 17 arrests, but no charges.

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