The newly announced Joint Illegal Gaming Investigation Team hopes to make a dent in money laundering and shady transactions taking place at B.C. casinos. And for good reason.

Those "suspicious cash transactions" have reached a staggering $119 million in the last 12 months, according to a B.C. government document that accompanied Monday's announcement of a crackdown.

According to Kevin Hackett, chief operating officer of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of B.C., the new investigative unit has been created to curtail a wide range of suspicious activity, including "people walking in [to a casino] with hockey bags full of money."

Money laundering bar graph

(Province of B.C.)

At the unveiling of the joint team in Vancouver, B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong referred briefly to a bar graph that showed "suspicious cash transaction reports for the Lower Mainland as received ... from gaming service providers ..."

The graph shows a peak last July of $20.7 million in suspicious cash transactions — but de Jong did not refer to the total for the past 12 months. But the chart does and according to it, the total amount of suspicious cash transactions since April of last year was $119.1 million.

Casino money laundering concerns

Money laundering can happen when individuals buy in at a casino with dirty cash, play a few games and then cash out their balance and claim it as winnings. (CBC)

In the past, CBC News investigations have shown how easily dirty money can be laundered at B.C. casinos, sometime by simply buying chips with ill-gotten cash and then turning around a short time later and cashing out.

Freedom of Information reports showed that during a three month period in 2014 almost $27 million worth of suspicious cash transactions were documented by just two Lower Mainland casinos — the River Rock in Richmond and the Starlight in New Westminster.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong says the new unit is different from past units tasked with cracking down on gambling crime.

"This one is focused directly on money laundering and suspected money laundering along with organized criminals operating within casinos in British Columbia," he said.

The new unit will consist of 22 law enforcement personnel from the CFSEU — the province's anti-gang agency — and four investigators from the B.C. Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch.

Seventy per cent of the $4.3 million per year funding for the Joint Illegal Gaming Investigation Team will come from the B.C. Lottery Corporation.

Hackett denied there is any conflict in having the BCLC, which profits from casino transactions regardless of their legality, fund the crack down. 

"Who writes the cheques is no concern of mine." he said. "My concern is to build the most effective team possible to enforce and advance the laws of the country."

The government claims it has already implemented some anti-money laundering strategies at B.C. casinos, including:

  • Actively promoting the use of cash alternatives such as debit cards, convenience cheques and patron gaming fund accounts.
  • Requiring that casino chips only be used at a single facility.
  • Restricting the passing of chips on casino floors.
  • Placing restrictions on patrons exchanging small bills for large currency denominations.

With files from Eric Rankin