Ontario's Finance Minister says he has no intention of halting a takeover deal for casinos with a company whose flagship operation in British Columbia is at the centre of a probe into allegations of money laundering by the province's gambling regulator.
On Wednesday, Finance Minister Charles Sousa characterized a regulatory review by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario into reports of money laundering at casinos in B.C.'s Lower Mainland as "routine." He said Great Canadian Gaming Corp., which operates one of the casinos, faces no criminal allegations and ruled out freezing a lucrative contract for the company to take over gambling facilities in the Greater Toronto Area early next year.
The Globe and Mail reported on Tuesday that officials from Ontario's gambling regulator have launched the regulatory review. The review follows the release of a report done for the B.C. government that alleged large volumes of "undocumented" cash were moving through Great Canadian's River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C.
The AGCO has contacted law-enforcement agencies in British Columbia, including the RCMP and the B.C. gambling regulator. Mr. Sousa said he supports the move by Ontario's regulator to take a close look at the B.C. allegations "When AGCO receives any concerns or any indications that they should investigate and review those activities, I think it's appropriate," he said.
However, he ruled out halting the deal with Great Canadian or another potential deal involving more casinos. "There is no indication of anything that's been untoward in the province of Ontario," he said. "I'm not about to defame a public company that's operating effectively in Canada. I'm more concerned with public good and public safety."
Mr. Sousa said he discussed the situation with B.C. Finance Minister Carole James in the past few days. He told The Globe that Ms. James praised Ontario's regulatory model and indicated her province was trying to emulate it.
Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi said he saw no cause for concern over the regulator's review. "There is no evidence whatsoever that any rules are being violated in Ontario," he said.
Terrance Doyle, chief operating officer of Great Canadian, told The Globe in an e-mail on Tuesday that, "to our knowledge our company is not under investigation in any jurisdiction."
The AGCO review comes in the middle of a years-long process by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. to hand operations of its casinos and slot machines to the private sector in a bid to increase the province's gambling revenues. Facing increasing competition from internet gambling and casinos in the United States, the OLG's profits have been flat in recent years and the agency's buildings and equipment are dated.
In August, the government agency announced an agreement with Great Canadian and two partners to run its Toronto-area casinos. While the company already operates casinos in Eastern Ontario, the Toronto bundle contains some of the OLG's most coveted assets. The area's casinos posted nearly $1-billion in revenues last year.
The allegations that large volumes of suspicious cash are swirling around B.C. casinos have cast a cloud over Ontario's plans.
However, OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti told The Globe in an e-mail last week: "Great Canadian was not required to notify OLG of its conversations with BC regulators or [the British Columbia Lottery Corporation] respecting gaming activity in BC casinos by certain persons identified by BCLC as suspicious which had not been made public."
The agreement will give a monopoly over casinos in the Toronto area for the next two decades to Great Canadian, which is expected to build new establishments. The deal for the acquisition of assets from OLG is expected to close in early 2018, and is subject to regulatory approvals.
The OLG said last year that it would announce the winning bidder this fall for another group of casinos, which are to the west of Toronto. Great Canadian has disclosed that it is on the short-list of bidders. Industry sources said the company is the leading contender for the new contract.
Concerns about money laundering in British Columbia were sparked by a report from the province's Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch that $13.5-million in $20 bills was accepted at Great Canadian's River Rock Casino in July, 2015. The department discovered that money from unknown persons that could not be traced was dropped off for patrons at the casino or just outside casino property at odd times, generally late at night.
An independent expert retained by B.C.'s Attorney-General confirmed last week that casinos in the Lower Mainland are conduits for large, suspicious cash transactions. But the scale of the problem and where the money is coming from are still under investigation.
Progressive Conservative finance critic Victor Fedeli and Ontario New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath called on the Ontario government on Wednesday to halt the casino deals during the probes in B.C. and Ontario. "The responsible thing to do is put a full halt on everything until all suspicion is cleared or we get to the bottom of what is happening in B.C.," Ms. Horwath said.