Former Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Rich Coleman heard directly from a lead casino investigator in December 2010 how VIP patrons were routinely gambling with larger and larger bundles of suspected illicit drug proceeds, the Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in B.C. was told Thursday.
Larry Vander Graaf, former Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch (GPEB) executive director of investigations, told Commissioner Austin Cullen how following the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, large cash buy-ins were increasing exponentially.
“Money laundering was on the move,” in B.C. gaming facilities, said Vander Graaf.
As such, Coleman met briefly with Vander Graaf at GPEB headquarters in Burnaby, alongside Deputy Minister Lori Wanamaker.
“Mr. Coleman opened the conversation,” said Vander Graaf. “He said, ‘What about this money laundering?’ And I said they're bringing it in in $10,000 bundles. He says, ‘I know lots of people with $10,000 in their pocket.’ I said, ‘If it's in $20 bills with elastic bands on both ends, you better check your friend zone,’” added Vander Graaf to commission counsel Alison Latimer.
“I explained to [Coleman] about the horrendous problem we were having in the casinos with the $20 bills, that $20 bills are a problem to drug traffickers. And it's a [$6 billion to $7 billion] industry,” said Vander Graaf.
“Money Laundering was resurfacing as a problem in the casinos,” he added. “It was an integrity issue to gaming. I felt that we had to do something about it. I felt that we should,” said Vander Graaf, who noted Coleman was receptive to his assertions.
“The only thing that Miss Wanamaker said was ‘Rich, we have to do something about this.’ That was the extent of that conversation,” said Vander Graaf.
Vander Graaf said he did not follow up with Coleman’s office following the meeting; however, he said his superiors, who would be in direct contact with the ministry, were well aware of the concerns from GPEB investigators.
However, by November 2011, one casino patron brought in $1.38 million worth of $20 bills across 13 transactions, the commission heard.
Furthermore, RCMP E-Division was aware of the issue at the time, as Latimer raised a 2010 letter from Vander Graaf’s superior Derek Dickson, GPEB director of investigations, to the BC RCMP Integrated Proceeds of Crime (IPOC) unit that notes meetings between the two agencies — which both report to Coleman.
“Mr. Dickson sets out that he and Mr. Schalk [GPEB senior director of investigations] met with the officer-in-charge of the RCMP integrated proceeds of crime unit. And they are well aware of this issue and seriously concerned that the casinos are being used as a method to launder large sums of money for organized crime groups. And they say they are of the opinion that this is without doubt, large-scale money laundering.”
At the time, Vander Graaf had suggested to superiors limiting buy-ins with $20 bills to $10,000.
“That was not a long-term permanent fix. That was a fix that could have been instituted immediately.
“It may have created some smurfing, you know, under a limit, but it would have eliminated the problem fairly quickly,” said Vander Graaf.
The suggestion was never accepted and Vander Graaf said he later suggested a $20,000 limit that was also rejected.
“You're raising the threshold just to try to make the suggestion more palatable?” asked Latimer.
“Exactly,” said Vander Graaf.
“We were constantly going to [IPOC] and dealing with them and trying to get them to instigate action in relation to the money laundering issue,” he said.
But whereas Vander Graaf had begun communicating with IPOC, the unit was subsequently disbanded in 2013, despite being “the logical first response unit for allegations of money laundering,” according to the 2018 report Dirty Money by former RCMP assistant commissioner Peter German. Prior to IPOC being disbanded, the Integrated Illegal Gaming Enforcement Team (IIGET) had received the same fate in 2009 on Coleman’s watch.
The commission has heard testimony from a number of current and former government employees from the three major entities tasked to regulate gaming and enforce laws: GPEB, the RCMP and the B.C. Lottery Corporation.
GPEB is the province’s equivalent of the Nevada Gaming Commission, in that it is mandated to set gambling rules and enforce them. BCLC is the government body that licenses casinos and other gaming venues. BCLC also has a mandate to manage and promote gaming, and issues net gaming revenue to the provincial government.
Commission counsel has focused questioning on how government balanced gambling regulations and revenue.
Vander Graaf, not unlike other casino investigators who have testified, asserted the B.C. government was in a conflict of interest. He also spoke to how deregistering casinos was never in the regulatory toolbox, at least up until the time he was fired in December 2014 for what he believes to be his honest criticisms toward his own agency.
Vander Graaf explained that neither GPEB nor BCLC investigators, whose mandates appeared to overlap, had perceived to have power to stop large cash buy-ins on casino floors. Rather, the job was to observe and report.
“We knew, and I always knew, that we could never investigate money laundering and proceeds of crime at GPEB and that neither could BCLC. And we all knew that they're too complicated. You need the full-blown policing agency to take a run at them,” he said.
Around 2013, police efforts to address casino-related crime appeared to turn toward the RCMP Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, which would later open an investigation called E-Pirate, focusing on loan sharks working with local underground banks connected to Asia that dispersed local drug money to wealthy Chinese nationals who would skirt capital controls in the People’s Republic of China.
Vander Graaf stated how for several years the BCLC took the position that because a gambler lost money it meant that money laundering was not occurring. Documents presented by Latimer showed Vander Graaf raising concerns about such misguided beliefs, as he noted the loaned (and lost) drug money would have to be repaid in some form.
“The loan sharks would have loved getting something other than the $20 bills back,” he explained.
And so, regardless of any police presence, Vander Graaf said GPEB and BCLC failed to properly regulate casinos that were also “blatantly” violating federal cash transaction laws, including not reporting any cash buy-in under $50,000 as suspicious for upwards of four years.
Despite his efforts to tip off police, “that didn't absolve us of the role that we had to play and we didn't do it,” said Vander Graaf.