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During years in which billions of illicit cash washed through British Columbia’s economy, federal RCMP investigators on Canada’s West Coast rarely pursued how the criminals in their highest-priority cases were laundering their money.

An internal RCMP review shared recently with B.C.’s Cullen Commission showed that between 2013 and 2016, federal Mounties working in the province on financial, cyber and serious and organized crime investigations only considered whether money laundering was occurring in a third of their 37 cases.

These same RCMP units pursued money laundering as an angle in even fewer of these cases from 2017 and 2018, chasing the proceeds of crime or seizing assets in just 6 per cent of the 32 investigations conducted over that time, the inquiry was told.

Superintendent Brent Taylor, a member of the RCMP for more than three decades who now leads the financial crime teams in B.C., told the inquiry that tackling money laundering has been a problem for investigators across Canada.

“Each region has its challenges, obviously, whether it be a resourcing issue or an issue of just having so many targets to go after,” he testified recently. “They are trying to do the best they can for the purposes of making Canada safe.”

Nationally, money laundering was investigated in just under half of all these cases between 2013 and 2016 and in about 22 per cent of probes over the next two years.

Testimony at the Cullen Commission indicates RCMP officers in British Columbia were also slammed with competing priorities, having to devote officers to everything from forest fires to pipeline protests. Despite that, money laundering was one of the federal RCMP’s stated priorities during the past decade, when lurid details emerged of hockey bags of $20 bills – the lingua franca of B.C.’s drug trade – routinely being emptied into Vancouver-area casinos and cash transactions for everything from mansions to supercars and baby grand pianos.

Nine months after the B.C. government struck the commission, the deputy commissioner, the second-highest ranking officer in the force, issued an internal directive in February, 2020, ordering all major crime units to begin considering money laundering or proceeds of crime charges at the outset of their investigations.

Superintendent Peter Payne, the Mountie in Ottawa who oversees all of the agency’s financial crime units, told the commission that this recommitment was made after those two reviews found expert RCMP investigators were not considering money-laundering crimes at a rate “as high as what we would have liked.”

Supt. Taylor said it is often difficult to follow the money when officers are targeting transnational criminal networks for drugs and may have to arrest someone and lay charges to protect public safely.

But, he agreed “you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take” to underline how money laundering had been neglected in these files.

Supt. Taylor said he estimated up to $6-million of the force’s $100-million annual budget in the province was dedicated to solving complex money-laundering crimes. But he noted the force is obligated under its policing contract with the province to offer up Mounties during times of crisis – a trend that is becoming more common in recent years.

“We’ve seen unprecedented years where we’ve had significant wildfires and we’ve also had issues with regards to people asserting their right over land and concern over the environment, with respect to the pipelines that are being built in the province,” he told the commission last month.

“And right now, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and federal resources are being asked to assist the Public Health Agency of Canada with respect to tracking and tracing and ensuring that people are being kind to one another.”

For more than two years, B.C.’s NDP government has been pushing the federal Liberal government to bring more RCMP officers west to investigate how billions have been laundered through various sectors in the province. Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has promised that the force is still working to restore its capacity to solve money-laundering cases after the Conservative government shut down a dozen specialized proceeds-of-crime units in 2013.

The commission heard that these cuts from nearly a decade ago led to a “robust” integrated unit of 55 people being disbanded, its various investigators scattered across other corners of the force or leaving policing altogether for other opportunities. None of the mid-level Mounties testifying before the commission offered up their estimate of how many officers are now needed to properly tackle money laundering in B.C.

Last November, B.C.’s Attorney-General David Eby told The Globe and Mail that no new RCMP resources have been added on this front in the past year and a half. In 2019, former Mountie Peter German found a skeleton crew of five people working these cases and – instead of recommending criminal charges to the Crown – simply forwarding files to the provincial Civil Forfeiture Office.

The staffing picture is considerably better today, RCMP leaders told the commission.

One team focuses on more local cases and working with its partner agencies across the country while another targets those washing money tied to transnational criminal networks or other global actors and liaises with agencies such as the FBI. Inspector Tony Farahbakhchian, who leads these two units, said they can combine for larger investigations, when they may have to carry out complicated tasks such as surveillance of multiple targets.

Together, they employ 38 Mounties, who have 18 active cases, the commission heard. Six positions remain vacant.

Supt. Payne said five extra money-laundering investigators have been added to new or existing teams in each of these four provinces: Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Quebec.

Senior commission counsel Brock Martland pressed Supt. Payne as to whether the RCMP’s commitment of five new officers in B.C. was just a “drop in the bucket” of the numbers needed to crack down on dirty money in the province.

“Well, it’s still an improvement,” Supt. Payne replied.

But former Mountie Wayne Rideout, who is now B.C.’s Director of Police Services overseeing all law enforcement in the province, said these five officers won’t make a difference in terms of the RCMP’s capacity to solve this sophisticated crime.

“Advancing these cases is very complex and uses multiple investigators over long periods of time,” Mr. Rideout told the commission.

“So to me, what I’m aware of currently, is really nowhere close to sufficient.”

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