VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s attorney general says a federal agency is obstructing the province’s efforts to combat money-laundering by not presenting key information it needs to aid an inquiry into the matter.
David Eby said the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (Fintrac) has refused to hand over documents B.C. needs to understand the extent of its money-laundering problem. He questioned the centre’s relevance if it won’t provide such information.
“Fintrac collects all this information and it seems to me nobody is allowed to see it except Fintrac,” Eby said. “They’re breaking their promise to Canadians when they take our private information and saying they’re going to use it to fight money-laundering; they’re not doing that.”
Fintrac rejected Eby’s comments. It said it has been co-operating as much as it can, reasoning it must protect information which could jeopardize police and national security investigations or infringe on people’s right to privacy.
Fintrac is an arm’s-length agency reporting to the finance minister and tasked with ensuring public compliance with Canada’s laws to prevent money-laundering and financing of terrorism. Among the data the centre collects are financial transaction reports and information taken directly from the public.
The centre says it analyzes data “from a variety of information sources” to track money-laundering patterns. It is allowed to disclose information to Canada’s security and policing agencies.
Academics, journalists and separate government reports have pegged money-laundering as rampant at the province’s casinos, in its real estate industry and in other sectors.
It has been widely blamed as the reason for Vancouver’s sky-high property prices, which have slipped out of reach of many residents. A B.C. government panel in 2019 laid the blame for this at the door of the phenomenon.
In May 2019, Eby announced an inquiry into the state of money-laundering in the province. The Cullen commission, named for commissioner Justice Austin Cullen, is an independent body examining the issue and has powers to compel witnesses and order disclosure.
On Dec. 10 Cullen publicly released an interim report that said money-laundering “strikes at the heart of our collective values and corrupts the fabric of a free and democratic society.”
Cullen wrote that Fintrac had only forwarded documents already publicly available on its website. When asked for further documents, the centre forwarded seven more and insisted its obligations ended there, Cullen wrote.
He added many more documents forwarded by federal authorities were redacted to the point of being useless. As well, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada has refused to allow in-person interviews with its members, according to Cullen.
Still, it’s Fintrac, in particular, that is upsetting Eby, who went on the radio in Vancouver earlier this week to raise the issue.
He told the Star Thursday Fintrac has essentially told B.C. “Get lost! This is not our problem.” He added he hopes he is wrong about his summary.
Eby said he wonders what the point of an agency with legal powers to force people to fill out forms related to finances is if it won’t make the information readily available to an inquiry such as the Cullen Commission.
“The only entity that can definitively answer the question about what’s happening in British Columbia and singularly assist us in determining how to stop it is Fintrac,” Eby said.
“The key information (lies in) intelligence reports that they say they prepare that summarize, at a high-level, themes, typologies and other types of activities that are expressly within the scope of what the inquiry needs to look at.”
Fintrac insists it has been co-operating with the commission.
The centre said it has provided the Cullen Commission with more than 100 document packages totalling 3,000 pages, and six of its officials have appeared before the commission four separate times within the last year.
“Fintrac has also reviewed thousands of pages of documents from other federal organizations, provincial regulators and private-sector entities participating in the Commission to ensure that the material can legally and safely be shared with the Commission,” said the centre in a statement.
Eby said there should be no concerns sharing the information with a government-established commission able to ensure the security of it. Besides, he said, the information requested is macro in nature, such as how much money may be coming into B.C. real estate from international sources.
“It is evidence to me something is profoundly broken when a provincial government that’s trying to stop money-laundering in our province can’t get basic information from the federal agency that’s charged with presenting it,” Eby said.
He wonders if the agency should “continue to exist” if it isn’t going to fully aid in the fight against money-laundering, while it is an organization “that obsesses about collecting data, ostensibly to prevent crime, to the point of pursuing businesses and individuals” in court.
“They’re actually obstructing our province from going after the problem, and, even worse, they’re creating the impression that there’s action when nothing is happening,” Eby said.
“So, they’re actually assisting these criminal organizations in helping them avoid detection by collecting the information and not sharing it.”