British Columbia

Former gaming minister dismisses 'ridiculous' allegations B.C. prioritized revenue over money laundering

A former B.C. cabinet minister responsible for gaming dismissed allegations Wednesday he prioritized casino revenue over efforts to investigate money laundering, saying he "never once" saw anyone deliberately turn a blind eye during his decade in the role.

Rich Coleman says he didn't have power to direct officials to investigate rise in suspected money laundering

Then-minister Rich Coleman speaks to media in Victoria on Feb. 15, 2017. Coleman told the Cullen inquiry into money laundering in B.C. on April 23 he never turned a blind eye to the problem during his decades in cabinet. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

A former B.C. cabinet minister responsible for gaming dismissed allegations Wednesday he prioritized casino revenue over efforts to investigate money laundering, saying he "never once" saw anyone deliberately turn a blind eye during his decade in the role.

Rich Coleman, a six-term former Liberal member of the B.C. Legislature, said accusations he ignored warnings about "out-of-control" organized criminal activity in Lower Mainland casinos were nonsense.

"That's just ridiculous," Coleman said during part of his four-hour testimony before the Cullen Commission. 

"There was never ever, that I saw, a point where somebody said, 'Ignore a revenue stream that could be illegal for the benefit of government.' It never happened."

Coleman is one of several current and former B.C. cabinet ministers to testify before the Cullen inquiry in recent days. The commission is meant to determine where and how money laundering has been happening in B.C., why it's been allowed to continue and whether it can be prevented in the future. 

Coleman, now retired from politics, was one of the most high-profile witnesses. He held the gaming portfolio on and off from 2001 to 2013 — a time during which money laundering began to take off — and a number of previous witnesses have accused him of failing to respond.

More than $100 million in suspected dirty cash was reportedly cleaned in B.C. over a decade and a half.

The B.C. government released photos in 2018 showing the till of a casino cash cage, where roughly $250,000 in suspected dirty money was converted into chips. (B.C. Ministry of the Attorney General )

Minister denies being 'all about the money'

Back in the early 2000s, Coleman said officials were more concerned with loan sharks and theft from casino parking lots than they were with large-scale money laundering. The RCMP's anti-illegal gaming unit, called IIGET, was created in 2004 to target illegal casinos and shady poker games.

In a controversial decision, Coleman disbanded IIGET in 2009 despite growing concerns about large amounts of suspicious cash at casinos.

He said Wednesday he decided against taking over funding of the $1-million team from the B.C. Lottery Corporation (BCLC) because it "wasn't that successful" and other squadrons of law enforcement would bridge the gap.

He rejected previous accusations from former top-level investigators who said he was prioritizing revenue over organized crime.

Fred Pinnock, the former commander with IIGET, testified in November that he tried to meet with Coleman earlier in 2009 about "out-of-control" organized criminal activity, but was denied.

Former minister Rich Coleman pictured in June 2020. Coleman retired from politics later that year. (CBC)

Pinnock claimed then-solicitor general Kash Heed later told him Coleman was deliberately looking the other way.

"[Heed] said to me, in effect, 'That is what's going on, Fred, but I can't say that publicly. You know it's all about the money,'" Pinnock recalled during his testimony.

"He did refer to Mr. Coleman as being largely responsible for this, as well as senior Mounties who were complicit."

Coleman said Wednesday he declined the meeting with Pinnock because he believed a sit-down would be stepping outside his "bounds" as minister, since there was a consultative board in place to help rule on IIGET's fate.

Coleman denied ever colluding with senior RCMP.

"Just didn't happen," the former minister said. "I had a very professional working relationship with the senior management at the RCMP … there's no way that I would've manipulated them in any way whatsoever."

Politicians can't direct investigators: Coleman

Coleman did concede money laundering was on his radar in his later years in cabinet, but left it in the hands of the BCLC and its regulator. He said it wasn't his place as an elected politician to tell those officials what to investigate or how to do it.

"I had to trust [them]," he said.

"Their job is their responsibility and for us to make a comment on how that should be done is outside of what our legislative responsibilities are," he said.

Reports have since found BCLC and the regulator, known as GPEB, were so plagued by bureaucracy, infighting and overall dysfunction they struggled to agree on how to address illicit cash

Surveillance footage of alleged money laundering. Attorney General David Eby said the tape shows wads of $20 bills being exchanged in a casino cash cage. (Supplied)

He said he kept up with briefing notes and media reports, including a 2011 CBC News investigation that detailed how $8 million in suspected drug money flowed unchecked through two B.C. casinos in three months.

Coleman told CBC at the time he would not commit to giving more power to the enforcement branch as a result because he did not "agree with" RCMP concerns noted in the article and did not believe the story was wholly accurate.

Asked about the same article Wednesday, Coleman did not dispute the report.

"It would have been concerning to me because my understanding, all the way through the file, is it wasn't possible [to launder money that way]," Coleman said.

Money laundering hit its peak in 2015, two years after Coleman left the portfolio. Former premier Christy Clark said no one from within her government raised concerns with her about dirty money until that fall.

A report in 2018 said a "collective systemic failure" cleared the way for unwitting casinos to become "laundromats" for proceeds of crime.

The Cullen Commission's final report is due by Dec. 15. The inquiry doesn't have the power to convict or find liability, but is expected to issue recommendations.

Rich Coleman, former Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, appeared on CBC's B.C. Almanac in 2011 to talk about money laundering in B.C. casinos as information began to come out. You can listen to that interview here: 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rhianna Schmunk is a staff writer for CBC News. She is based in Vancouver with a focus on justice and the courts. You can reach her on Twitter @rhiannaschmunk or by email at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press

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