Commissioner Austin Cullen will hear from witnesses during an inquiry dedicated to an overview of money laundering and regulatory models, in a May 25, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Government trying to escape game of ‘catch up’ on dirty money: inquiry hears

Deputy solicitor general Mark Sieben said the proposal requires further scrutiny but has merit

British Columbia officials say it’s a challenge for government to keep up with a “smart and nimble” criminal economy that has seen money laundering flourish in the province.

Officials from the ministries of Finance, the Attorney General and the Solicitor General appeared Thursday before commissioner Austin Cullen, who is overseeing a public inquiry into money laundering.

They outlined measures the province has begun taking to stem the problem that government reports say has seen the proceeds of crime obscured through the real estate, gambling and other sectors.

In one case, the inquiry heard that an anti-money laundering committee of deputy ministers is considering a proposal for a multi-sector unit for enforcement and intelligence sharing.

Megan Harris, executive director and anti-money laundering secretariat lead, said the new unit would receive suspicious transaction reports and alerts from various sectors and service providers. It would also have enforcement powers.

That idea and others have been put on hold pending the Cullen commission’s conclusions and recommendations.

Deputy solicitor general Mark Sieben said the proposal requires further scrutiny but has merit. It has the benefit of being adapted to different sectors, unlike an intelligence and enforcement unit dedicated specifically to casinos, for example.

“The criminal economy is nimble and where there is strong enforcement action, the money tends to move to a new sector so our response then needs to be nimble as well,” Sieben said.

The unit would cost $15 million to $20 million a year, which Sieben said is no small amount for the government to consider so officials thought it prudent to put the idea on the back burner until the fact-gathering portion of the inquiry is done.

The Cullen commission heard opening arguments in February and the main hearings in September will delve into specific industries.

Attorney General David Eby has said he hopes it will answer lingering questions about how the criminal activity has infiltrated in the province.

Harris told the inquiry that the government has identified many obstacles in the fight against money laundering.

Regulators in real estate aren’t sharing information with gaming regulators, for example, and there are privacy concerns with encouraging that kind of sharing, she said.

The government’s own understanding of the problem is often limited to expert reports on particular sectors like the luxury car industry, but others like art dealing remain a blind spot, Harris added.

It’s also difficult for the government to keep up with rapidly evolving technology, although it’s working to understand how dirty money may be cleaned through cryptocurrency exchanges, Harris said.

And there’s concern that the public sees dirty money as a victimless crime, she said, even though the proceeds often come from an illicit drug trade linked with the deadly overdose crisis and the practice has affected house prices.

The officials are developing a 10-year plan that’s concentrated in the next four years to co-ordinate its response.

To go after money laundering, resources are needed but the secretariat and deputy ministers committee understand they need to be strategically placed in order to be effective, Sieben said.

“The criminal activity that’s generating revenue and the revenue itself changes fluidly and it’s to some degree a game of catch up in order to have the right money in the right strategy at the right time in order to successfully interrupt that.”

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

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