The B.C. government’s decision Wednesday to launch a public inquiry into money laundering is being applauded by politicians and other advocates.
Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West, who has long called for a public investigation into criminal activity in the province’s casinos and real estate market, said he was happy the government made the right call.
“I think this is a good day for British Columbians who’ve been disgusted by the revelations that we’ve learned over the last number of years about the extent of money laundering,” West said.
WATCH: B.C. government announces public inquiry into money laundering
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin F. Cullen has been appointed to head the inquiry. Cullen was appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court in 2001 and has had a long legal career in British Columbia.
Cullen will examine regulatory authorities and barriers to effective law enforcement of money laundering activities. He will also have the ability to compel witnesses and order disclosure.
West said he was glad the province appears to have done a lot of work leading up to the decision, and that they have the co-operation of the federal government.
“I hope this is the beginning of us getting our province back,” he said. “Think of all the people who have died from fentanyl. Think of all the people who haven’t been able to afford a home.
“This is for all the people who do nothing more than work hard everyday and raise their families, pay their taxes, and want to ensure our province isn’t the world’s dirty money dumping ground.”
The calls for a public inquiry from West and other critics have grown louder in the wake of the latest reports from Peter German and Maureen Maloney, which found money laundering has affected the province’s real estate and luxury car markets.
WATCH: Commissioner of B.C. money laundering inquiry can call anyone to testify
The Maloney report alone revealed that $5 billion was funneled through B.C.’s real estate market last year, driving already sky-high home prices up by at least five per cent.
A series of Global News reports also talked to a former Richmond casino employee who linked the rise in money laundering and criminal activity in the casino sector to the then-NDP government’s decision to raise betting limits from $25 to $500 in 1997.
Premier John Horgan announced the two-year inquiry will put no restrictions on how far back Cullen may have to reach, meaning members of the previous Liberal government and possibly the NDP government of the late 1990s may be compelled to testify.
In a statement, the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union said they were looking forward to the public inquiry uncovering more on an issue its members have been advocating for during the past six months.
WATCH: BC government launches public inquiry into money laundering
“Like all British Columbians, our members want answers about how our province got into this mess, how we get out of it, and who is responsible,” president Stephanie Smith said.
“We’ve said from the beginning that a public inquiry is the only way to turn the lights on so we can get the full picture.”
While the cost of the inquiry won’t be known for some time, West said any taxpayer costs pale in comparison to both the damage money laundering has done in B.C., and also what could be recovered.
“I think B.C. is already experiencing a huge financial cost because of the inaction that this happened for so long,” he said.
WATCH: Federal Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair backs B.C. in money laundering inquiry
“Will the inquiry cost money? Absolutely. The Charbonneau inquiry in Quebec cost money: $45 million. But you know, what it recovered was $95 million for taxpayers.”
The Charbonneau Commission worked hand-in-hand with prosecutors to not only expose corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, but also lay charges and convictions against several direct players, including politicians.
Investigators behind those convictions said they relied directly on testimony delivered during the public inquiry.
Charbonneau Commission deputy chief prosecutor Simon Tremblay said the broad mandate Cullen has been given can be beneficial, but warned the prosecutor to be cautious.
“He could find something that will be like the root of the problem of today, and could go back,” Tremblay said. “But it all depends on the people he’d be surrounded with and the planning he does.
“If they’re well-organized they could be successful, but if they want to investigate every single thing, they could get lost.”
WATCH: NDP calls on feds to launch formal inquiry into money laundering
Tremblay added people should understand the inquiry won’t immediately lead to criminal prosecutions unless those lawyers work in tandem with the investigation — something that has been used as a criticism by those who want convictions over an inquiry.
But West said it’s important to have the details aired in public in order to fix the problem while legal cases stall, including last year’s RCMP probe that fell apart over the accidental exposure of an informant.
“We don’t understand what we’re dealing with,” he said. “We only have bits and pieces, and we have no convictions.
“I think moving forward what this gives us the opportunity to do is address the issue on a systemic basis; go after the people who participated and profited from this; and also have political accountability from the people who are the decision makers who made decisions that either facilitated this or who ignored the warnings that were raised by many, many people that there was something wrong in this province.”
— With files from Richard Zussman, Sam Cooper and John Hua
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