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Casino investigator felt he had ‘very little authority,’ Cullen Commission hears

Rob Barber joins a growing list of former casino investigators questioning senior directions for enforcement of money laundering laws in B.C. gambling facilities
A former casino investigator told the Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in B.C. Tuesday that his concerns about suspected proceeds of crime funnelling through Richmond’s River Rock Casino and Resort were falling on deaf ears | Facebook/BIV files

A former casino investigator testified Tuesday that he was met with a culture of indifference upon being hired in 2010 at the province’s gambling regulator and enforcement arm.

“I had very little authority for whatever reason, and it was long established,” Ron Barber told Commissioner Austin Cullen at the Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in B.C. 

Barber described how the concerns he voiced to supervisors about suspected proceeds of crime funnelling through Richmond’s River Rock Casino and Resort and other casinos appeared to fall on deaf ears.

“These were surprising times for me on many fronts,” said Barber, a former Vancouver Police Department officer who spent seven years with the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch (GPEB).

At issue is a roughly seven-year period, between 2010 and 2017, when cash buy-ins became larger and more frequent to the point that $800,000 in $20 bills were being accepted with near impunity.

Despite the mandate, it appeared to Barber that GPEB was doing little enforcing of the Gaming Control Act. Barber described how much of his job was processing cash buy-in reports from the casino surveillance and compliance staff, as well as investigators for BC Lottery Corp. (BCLC), the Crown agency that licenses gaming venues, promotes gambling and disperses net revenue to the provincial government.

“They wrote those reports year in, year out, but management didn’t stop the flow of money coming in,” said Barber.

GPEB investigators, who have officer status, were not properly equipped to conduct independent investigations; instead, police were needed and this was not a given on most days, said Barber.

“We were not set up to conduct those types of investigations,” Barber told commission counsel Patrick McGowan. “We didn’t have the budget, training, manpower or facilities to do them. Let alone the vehicles.”

Barber said he was never aware of any independent GPEB investigation during his time, and that he spent little to no time on casino floors. His comments add to prior testimony from some BCLC investigators who told of how investigations were suppressed and transaction reporting errors and omissions became routine, such as Great Canadian Gaming Corp. (GCGC) casino staff not reporting cash buy-ins less than $50,000 for about four years.

Barber said his senior staff did not train him upon his arrival and never reinforced the powers he had to stop suspicious buy-ins or reporting errors, which have previously been described as a result of apparent confusion between BCLC and GCGC. (BCLC was fined by the federal agency FINTRAC in 2010.)

He said his authority was frequently called into question.

“I was aware if I told someone [casino staff] to do something, that would be the end of it for me in the casino. There’s an element of crying wolf,” he said.

Barber later clarified he did not think his job was on the line.

“Long before I got there, people were not responding to us as a regulator,” he said, adding how the first time he entered a surveillance room at River Rock, an argument ensued.

“It was quite an interesting experience to be yelled at by people you’re supposed to work with. Their point of view was we didn’t know what we were talking about,” he said.

Barber described how his boss John Mazure, GPEB assistant deputy minister, once said how he could not get BCLC “to heel.”

Mazure also told GPEB investigators to stand down, said Barber, who could not recall specifics.

“Mazure believed we in GPEB were a bunch of ‘rogue’ investigators,” said Barber.

Mazure has not been scheduled to testify.

Barber also said he believed two GPEB investigations supervisors, Joe Schalk and Larry Vander Graff, were fired because they had spoken out too much about money laundering concerns.

But several lawyers cross-examined Barber, noting many times that much of what Barber was saying was opinion or hearsay.

Lawyers for GCGC, BCLC and GPEB have argued their organizations were following protocols set in place for them during the period in question.

Mark Skwarok, counsel for GCGC, had Barber concede that Barber never initiated proceedings against River Rock staff, who never once failed to comply with a directive from Barber (he never issued any).

This aligned with Barber’s perception that he had no power, even with BCLC members.

“As I understood it the organization [BCLC] cut GPEB off,” he told lawyer Christine Mainville, representing former BCLC head of compliance Rob Kroeker. Barber never approached BCLC staff about anti-money laundering procedures, Mainville noted.

Chantelle Rajotte, counsel for GPEB, questioned how Barber came to the conclusion Schalk and Vandergraf were terminated in late 2014. Barber conceded he does not know with certainty why the two were let go. She noted Barber was not privy to a 2014 operations review prior to their departure.

The hearing continues online this week due to COVID-19 precautions.