B.C. Lottery Corp. relents after 9-year battle to keep secret records linked to $700k fine
Province's attorney general says release of records from money laundering watchdog's audit 'long overdue'
After fighting the CBC for nine years over the release of money laundering records, the B.C. Lottery Corporation is finally relenting.
After three trips to court, a full hearing before B.C.'s information and privacy commission, and another hearing coming up, the lottery corporation now plans to go to court to get permission to release the documents to the CBC.
The records relate to the reasons why Canada's money laundering watchdog, FINTRAC, imposed a $695,750 fine against BCLC in 2010 — its largest ever fine against a provincial gaming corporation.
"I find it a little bit horrifying that level of resource investment has to go into getting access to this kind of record," said Mike Larsen, president of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.
"We firmly believe that access delayed is access denied," he said.
Watch CBC go undercover to 'launder' $24,000 at two B.C. casinos in 2008:
BCLC said it is unable to comment on its change of heart given the matter will be before the Federal Court, and is currently before the information and privacy commissioner.
However, B.C. Attorney General David Eby said he made his wishes about transparency known to the new board at BCLC.
"I think the release of these documents — and I hope it will come urgently — is long overdue," Eby said.
Long and winding road
In 2010, FINTRAC conducted a major audit of BCLC. The results weren't good, and led to the record fine.
BCLC is required under money laundering legislation to send to FINTRAC reports of large and suspicious cash transactions that take place in B.C. casinos.
The details of what FINTRAC found were never released.
At the time, BCLC said the problems related to late filing of reports due to technical glitches and human error.
1,285 problematic reports
Two years ago, a report into money laundering at B.C. casinos written by former RCMP deputy commissioner Peter German confirmed the fine was linked to deficiencies in more than 1,285 reports. But other details — such as what FINTRAC'S audit report said, and its reasons for finding BCLC in violation — remained secret.
In 2011, the CBC filed a freedom of information request to obtain the records, which BCLC opposed. The CBC took the case to the freedom of information commissioner, and in a pair of rulings, the office ordered the records released.
BCLC quickly petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court to overturn the commissioner's ruling. The CBC eventually withdrew from the case.
BCLC obtains confidentiality order
In the meantime, BCLC was also fighting FINTRAC's fine in Federal Court. As that proceeding was underway, the CBC tried to obtain the records from the Federal Court, but BCLC obtained a confidentiality order over them.
In 2017, the Federal Court proceeding ended with FINTRAC withdrawing its case against BCLC and the penalty was removed by the Court. The case was never argued in open court. By then, according to the German report, FINTRAC felt BCLC was meeting its legal requirements to file money laundering reports properly.
But the CBC still had no access to any of the records.
CBC tries again
In 2018, the CBC refiled a request for the records — to BCLC and the Ministry of the Attorney General.
The ministry did release some records, but any information of interest was redacted. When Eby was asked about his own ministry blocking the release, he said "it's been almost absurdly complex ... British Columbians deserve to see this information."
Since 2018, BCLC has refused the release for many reasons, citing harm to law enforcement, solicitor-client privilege, and interference with government relations. Along the way it added and dropped grounds for refusal. But it always cited the confidentiality order obtained from the Federal Court back in 2012.
'Obfuscating ... not penalized'
Changing the rationale for withholding records is often a method for delaying access, Larsen said.
"Simply obfuscating, trying to do whatever is possible to withhold records and frustrate the process until the applicant gives up — this is something that is not really penalized in the current system, and should be," he said.
Now with another hearing before the freedom of information commission coming up, the B.C. Lottery Corporation says it will ask the Federal Court to lift the confidentiality order over the records. It's not known when the hearing will take place, so there is no date set for the release of the documents.
"If it wasn't an organization like CBC pursuing this, it wouldn't have been pursued. It's frustrating the system requires this immense allocation of resources to push against government secrecy," Larsen said.
"It's commendable you pushed back."
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- This story has been updated to point out that the fine imposed on the BCLC was removed by the federal court by a consent order. The update also attributes to the German report the assertion that FINTRAC felt BCLC was meeting its legal requirements to file money laundering reports properly.Jan 12, 2021 8:08 PM PT