VICTORIA — Why haven’t the New Democrats called a public inquiry into money laundering?
Just ask Attorney-General David Eby, who has given multiple explanations for not doing so even as he encourages speculation about the possibilities.
Eby rolled out his first reason for not calling a public inquiry in the fall of 2017, following recruitment of Peter German to conduct an expedited review of money laundering in casinos.
“Public inquiries generally take a long time,” said Eby. “People lawyer up and it takes a year or two before you get the recommendations. I just don’t feel we have that kind of time and I also don’t think the solutions are so complicated.”
Without the potential stigma of being named and blamed in a public inquiry, said Eby, “all of the parties involved have agreed to make all of the primary documents available to (the) investigation. No need to get court orders.”
Eby expanded on that rationale when releasing German’s report in June 2018.
“Within a 10-month period,” said the Attorney-General, “he was able to provide us with these very detailed findings and recommendations, so we could take action as quickly as possible.”
Granted there were downsides to the review: “The loss of some accountability, the loss of the ability to say this person violated this policy, this person violated that law.”
A public inquiry could do all that. But that route had its downsides as well.
“People are notified if they’re at risk of having a finding made that they violated a law or a policy, whether criminal or civil or administrative,” Eby explained.
“They have the opportunity to retain counsel. If they’re public servants, then it is possible that the public would be paying for their lawyers. We were looking at … an exercise that would last probably a couple of years and would cost a significant amount of money.”
Plus, as German himself explained, a public inquiry would be challenged to produce the hard-and-fast specifics necessary to name names in even one case of suspected money laundering.
“If one were to do a forensic accounting, you’d probably need a team of accountants and quite a long time to try to diagnose the thousands of suspicious transactions that have been reported over the years,” the lawyer and money laundering expert told reporters. “To determine the origin of cash in each one is virtually an impossible mission.”
Returning to the virtues of an expedited review, Eby said “the upside is that we can act quickly to get dirty money out of our casinos and then move on to the next piece, because we can’t let organized crime get ahead of us.”
His “next piece” was retaining German to review money laundering in real estate and other sectors, conducted on the same no-names, no-blame basis as the first phase.
Toward the end of 2018, Premier John Horgan weighed in with his take on calls for a public inquiry.
“Inquiries tend to cost a lot of money and lead to a report that’s a few inches thick that sits on a shelf,” he told host Jon McComb on CKNW.
Or as he put it in a year-end interview with reporter David Ball of StarMetro: “What would an inquiry accomplish? is the question that I keep asking myself, and David (Eby), the Attorney-General, does as well.”
As calls for an inquiry heated up in the new year, Eby emphasized the province would first need the help of the federal government and its agencies to catch and contain money laundering.
“We can’t do it alone,” he told McComb in a followup interview on CKNW last month, citing recent stays of prosecution in criminal cases involving money laundering.
“The criminal law is in the sole jurisdiction of the federal government. This recent stay of two major files — that’s the federal prosecution service and federal RCMP. We really need the federal government on board.”
Likewise the province needs co-operation with federal banking regulators, the immigration service, foreign affairs, justice and the tax department.
In order to get to the bottom of how money laundering burgeoned out of control in B.C., any public inquiry would have to explore the actions and lapses of not just provincial politicians, officials and agencies, but federal ones as well.
But if the province were to launch such an exercise unilaterally, it could kiss goodbye any hope of further co-operation with Ottawa.
“Any kind of public inquiry discussion would (mean) federal government involvement, whether it’s a joint inquiry or otherwise, given the national and international dimensions of this,” conceded Eby.
Would Ottawa want its agencies and bureaucrats paraded through the naming and blaming exercise of a public inquiry? I doubt it.
Still, for all his reasons for not ordering a public inquiry, Eby insists the possibility remains active.
“If it’s necessary to get the information out to British Columbians, we will not hesitate to call a public inquiry,” he told the CBC’s Gloria Macarenko recently. “The premier has made that commitment.”
Thus the artful Eby continues to switch between the prudent justice minister who doesn’t want to waste time and effort on a fruitless exercise and the crusading Attorney-General who threatens to blow the whole thing wide open.
But 18 months into the term of government, the act is wearing thin. The New Democrats should either launch the public inquiry or rule it out. Enough trying to have it both ways.
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