Investigators had little power to act on 'daily' suspicious cash transactions at B.C. casino, staff say
Ken Ackles and Rob Barber say they did not have jurisdiction to directly investigate suspicious incidents
Former investigators for B.C.'s Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch (GPEB) said they once saw suspicious cash transactions happening "daily" at a major casino in Richmond, B.C., but for years did not have clearance to take action beyond filing reports to their superiors, an inquiry has heard.
Ken Ackles, investigations manager, estimated he spent "70 per cent" of his days assigned to the River Rock Casino preparing confidential "Section 86" reports, which summarize suspicious incidents at gaming sites in B.C.
He said he saw suspicious transactions happening every day during his first year at the casino in 2013. Once, he heard of a well-known VIP patron paying up to $300,000 for buy-ins with sloppy stacks of $20 bills held together with elastic bands.
Ackles, who had previously spent 37 years with the RCMP, said the cash resembled proceeds of crime he saw while he was working as a police officer. His partner, Rob Barber, said the same Tuesday based on his 28 years of experience with the Vancouver Police Department.
Despite their concerns, they said, there was little they could do to directly investigate.
Ackles' and Barber's casino experiences were the focus of proceedings Monday and Tuesday at a public inquiry on money laundering in B.C.
Both told the hearing they saw a steady increase in the number and size of cash buy-ins at the River Rock Casino between 2013 and the peak of the province's money laundering problem in 2015.
Ackles eventually talked Barber into creating an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of large, suspicious transactions happening at the casino. It listed $20-million worth in July 2015, with at least $13.5 million in $20 bills.
Ackles took the spreadsheet to GPEB's executive director, Len Meilleur.
"He was shocked. He thought I was joking," Ackles told the commission.
Barber said the men put the spreadsheet together in spite of GPEB policy after getting increasingly fed up with writing reports that didn't change anything.
"We'd both been writing these reports and becoming more frustrated over the years, and he convinced me," said Barber, who is now retired.
The GPEB regulates gambling in B.C. and is meant to ensure the integrity of gambling industry companies. Ackles told the commission he did not believe he had the power as a GPEB investigator to tell a service provider to refuse money, seize suspicious cash or ban a patron. He said his bosses told him not to interview patrons for more information on where their cash came from.
Ackles and Barber both said they did not have clearance to directly investigate suspicious incidents for a number of reasons, including the complexity of an investigation, risk of violence and legislative limitations. Any comprehensive investigation, they said, would be under the RCMP's jurisdiction.
Several lawyers grilled the men on cross-examination, asking them to explain why they couldn't do more.
Robin McFee, counsel for B.C. Lottery Corporation (BCLC) president James Lightbody, asked Ackles whether the RCMP ever investigated any of the reports Ackles "spent so much time preparing."
Ackles responded by saying Mounties "had an interest" in one case in 2015, but it ended with a stay of proceedings.
"It was frustrating," said Ackles, agreeing with McFee. "It wasn't [a good expenditure of my time]."
The Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in B.C. was launched by the government after reports that illegal cash was helping to fuel the real estate, luxury car and gambling sectors in the province. A 2018 report said casinos in B.C. had "unwittingly served as laundromats" for the proceeds of crime as far back as 2011.
A section of the 2018 report was devoted to the "testy relationship" between the BCLC — which oversees casinos — and the GPEB, which oversees gaming. It found the two institutions were often too busy fighting each other to properly focus on criminals in their midst.
Ackles and Barber acknowledged there could often be overlap between the Section 86 reports their department prepared and those prepared by BCLC staff. Corporation staff, McFee said, often wondered what the GPEB team was doing to take concrete action.
"I'm aware that from talking to the [BCLC] investigators themselves that they were frustrated, yes," Ackles said.
Commission hearings continue this week in Vancouver.