Union, advocate shocked by BCLC's demand for $500K fee for money laundering info

A union's attempt to get info on money laundering rules compliance by a B.C. Lottery Corporation casino operator came up snake eyes when the Crown corporation wanted over $500,000 for a freedom of information request.

Advocate says amount far too high and could be attempt to keep cards — and info — close to the chest

A privacy and government transparency advocate says he’s seen some steep FOI bills from government bodies, but the $500,000 bill a union got from the B.C. Lottery Corporation is the biggest he can remember. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

A casino workers' union has been told to ante up — to the tune of over $500,000 — for a freedom of information request it made to the B.C. Lottery Corporation.

Marc Hollin of Unite Here requested five years' worth of communication between the lottery corporation and Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, which operates several casinos in B.C. 

Hollin's request concerned communication about compliance with anti-money laundering rules.

A lottery corporation freedom of information analyst replied in a memo shown to CBC that work would take an estimated 16,817 hours to complete and would cost $504,480. Before starting the work, BCLC wanted the union to pay half up front.

"I was shocked and surprised by BCLC's outrageously high fee estimate for our Freedom of Information request," Hollin wrote in an email to CBC.

"We believe in the public's fundamental right to have access to information from our governments, including access to documents relating to anti-money laundering compliance in Canadian casinos."

Fees rarely charged

Both the BCLC and the office of Attorney General David Eby — whose ministry is responsible for BCLC — declined to comment on specific details of the ongoing FOI request made by Unite Here.

The lottery corporation did say in a statement that only about three per cent of FOI requests lead to them charging a fee.

"When BCLC receives FOI requests that are broadly worded and would require extensive time, ... our FOI team has a duty to assist and works with FOI applicants to try to clarify, refine and narrow the request to conduct a more targeted search to locate the information that the applicant seeks, before assessing a fee," the statement read.

High figure 'raises suspicion'

But Vincent Gogolek, a privacy and government transparency advocate, says while Unite Here's request is broad and covers a large time frame, the amount of money demanded by BCLC "raises suspicion."

He says he's seen some steep FOI bills from government bodies before, but this is the biggest he can remember.

"I'm not sure how much information you're putting together to justify a bill of that size," he said. "How many records are we talking about? Of course, we don't know."

He says public bodies sometimes demand large sums for information as a way to not give it out at all.

"When you're going to charge someone half a million dollars for a request, the message is, you can request it, but get ready for a battle," he said. "That shouldn't be the way it is."

Options for appeal

Under B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Act, a public body like BCLC can charge an FOI applicant if the request for records takes more than three hours to complete.

The fees can be waived if the request is found to be "a matter of public interest, including the environment or public health or safety," or if the applicant cannot afford to pay.

Hollin says he still hopes BCLC will waive the fee request in this case. Gogolek believes it should because money laundering in casinos has been a concern for years.

Gogolek says Unite Here could appeal the fee demands to B.C.'s privacy commissioner, or try to narrow the scope of its request in an effort to reduce the fees.

With files from Farrah Merali