In this June 23, 2021 photo a gambler picks up chips at a roulette table at Bally's casino in Atlantic City N.J. Lawyers representing operators of British Columbia's largest gaming companies say compliance with provincial regulations to combat money laundering is and always has been a top priority at provincial casinos.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Wayne Parry

B.C. money laundering inquiry hears plea for whistleblower protections

Inquiry heard investigators raised concerns with officials more than a decade ago

A lawyer representing British Columbia government workers has urged a public inquiry into money laundering to call for better protection for whistleblowers, saying had those been in place, illegal cash may not have ended up in provincial casinos.

Jitesh Mistry told the Cullen commission Monday that front-line casino workers often observe suspicious activities but fear harassing, intimidating and dangerous behaviours by coming forward.

“We say if such a regime had existed during the period of inaction and wilful blindness, it is quite possible that many of the adverse effects of money laundering would have been mitigated,” said Mistry, who represents the B.C. General Workers Union.

The inquiry, which concluded testimony last month and is hearing final submissions, has heard that investigators raised concerns with gaming and government officials more than a decade ago that increasing amounts of suspicious cash was being used at Vancouver-area casinos.

The inquiry has heard from about 200 witnesses, including former premier Christy Clark, cabinet ministers, police officers, gaming officials, financial crime experts and academics.

Austin Cullen, who’s also a B.C. Supreme Court justice, was appointed by the provincial government in 2019 to lead the inquiry after several reports said the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal cash linked to organized crime affected the province’s real estate, luxury vehicle and gaming sectors.

The inquiry’s mandate includes making findings of fact on the extent, growth and methods of money laundering in B.C., and whether the acts or omissions of responsible regulatory agencies and individuals “contributed to money laundering in the province or amount to corruption,” the commission’s website says.

Mistry said the suspicious activities associated with illegal cash at casinos grew during the former B.C. Liberal government when programs sustained deep cuts to support tax reductions.

The union believes a comprehensive whistleblower regime for casino workers would better protect the integrity of the industry and the public interest, Mistry said.

B.C. has whistleblower protections but there are gaps, said Mistry, calling for enhanced protections in the gaming industry, private sector and the media. He said Saskatchewan and New Brunswick are jurisdictions with broad whistleblower protections.

Earlier Monday, lawyers for B.C.’s largest gaming companies said compliance with provincial regulations to combat money laundering is and always has been a top priority at provincial casinos.

Great Canadian Casino lawyer Mark Skwarok told the commission that the company went beyond its reporting obligations to the Crown-owned B.C. Lottery Corp., including installing a surveillance system that extended to parking areas near the River Rock casino in Richmond.

Videos showing people carrying large bags full of cash at the casino were cited as examples of suspicious activity with likely links to organized crime and money laundering ahead of the provincial government’s decision to launch the public inquiry.

Lawyer David Gruber, representing Gateway Casinos, told the inquiry it’s a myth that large cash transactions are casino money makers because data shows the high-limit tables are not important revenue drivers.

Closing submissions were scheduled to conclude Tuesday. Cullen’s final report is due Dec. 15.

— By Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Christy Clark says she first learned of money-laundering spike in 2015

RELATED: Casino operators tell B.C. money laundering public inquiry they followed money rules

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