Random thoughts about B.C.'s public inquiry into money laundering—and the man who's heading it

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      It's not surprising that B.C. Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Austin Cullen was chosen to conduct a public inquiry into money laundering.

      As a long-time insider in the Ministry of Attorney General before becoming a judge in 2001, Cullen can be trusted by the NDP government.

      He was a regional Crown counsel and assistant deputy attorney general for the criminal justice branch when the NDP last ruled the province from 1991 to 2001. As a result, Cullen is a known entity to NDP political veterans like Premier John Horgan and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.

      Moreover, during a prosecutorial career that spanned nearly 20 years, Cullen worked closely with the police. 

      We can expect that senior Mounties and chiefs of municipal police forces are going to be happy with his appointment.

      As an aside, Cullen was one of two prosecutors who recommended that no criminal charges be laid against Vancouver police officers in connection with the death of an Indigenous man, Frank Paul.

      Paul's corpse was found in an East Vancouver alley in 1998 after he was taken out of the police station and left out in the cold by officers. Televised video of an immobile Paul being dragged across the floor of the cop shop left a searing impression on many viewers.

      By the time Paul's death became the subject of a judicial inquiry, Cullen was already a judge.

      Therefore, the Ministry of Attorney General maintained that this gave Cullen immunity from testifying.

      I'll make a prediction today: when Cullen's report is eventually released, he won't end up seriously questioning efforts by the RCMP, municipal police forces, Attorney General David Eby, and Farnworth to secure more public resources for law enforcement to fight money laundering.

      I also predict that Cullen won't suggest that these politicians and police agencies reallocate existing resources to better address white-collar crime.

      I doubt that the commissioner will seriously explore the phenomenal difference between former deputy RCMP commissioner Peter German's estimates about the magnitude of casino money laundering in B.C. and the amount of residential real estate that actually changes hands in this province.

      Nor do I expect Cullen to probe why the attorney general is so obsessed about money laundering in casinos, which have a large Chinese Canadian clientele, while issuing far less public commentary about potential money laundering in other cash businesses, like cannabis or short-term lending.

      Keep in mind that cannabis and short-term lending are not heavily unionized industries. Casino workers, on the other hand, are represented by unions friendly to the NDP government.

      And Cullen is certainly not going to explore factors other than money laundering that might be influencing housing prices. That's not in his mandate.

      Of course, Cullen also won't investigate why a high-profile money-laundering prosecution fell apart.

      That's because he's been prevented from doing so in the terms of reference for the inquiry.

      This guarantees that federal and provincial prosecutors will get a soft ride. This is the case even if they may have violated disclosure requirements outlined in the Supreme Court of Canada's Stinchecombe decision. We'll never know because this cannot be examined.

      I'm guessing what Cullen will do is hire a pit bull of a lawyer to act as his commission counsel. And this lawyer will likely eviscerate high-profile B.C. Liberal politicians if they're called to testify.

      Former senior B.C. Liberal cabinet ministers Mike de Jong and Rich Coleman probably won't be grinning if they're ever cross-examined by a tough commission counsel.

      We could hear some details about how backroom B.C. Liberals with ties to the casino industry, like lobbyist Patrick Kinsella and former Great Canadian Casino vice president Jacee Schaefer, may have communicated with former deputy premier Rich Coleman. This will generate considerable media attention if Coleman is forced to answer questions under oath.

      We might even see some high-profile and wealthy B.C. Liberal campaign contributors being called to testify. 

      We'll also likely learn more about the dramatic expansion in legal gambling during the B.C. Liberals' rule.

      But I doubt there will be a serious exploration of the role that Horgan and Farnworth played in growing gambling revenues for the previous NDP government in the 1990s, nor about how Horgan's lobbying helped ensure that slot machines would be allowed in Vancouver.

      Farnworth's political career came crashing down in 2001 in part because of a gambling controversy involving him and a former premier, Glen Clark.

      As a result, Farnworth recognizes the potential political consequences for his opponents of a public inquiry into a hot topic like money laundering.

      I'm going to be watching to see what unions that represent casino workers will want Cullen to recommend. This could turn out to be one more fascinating aspect of this inquiry, given the unions' close ties to the NDP.

      Cullen's final report is expected to be released in May 2021. That's just a few months before the scheduled October 16, 2021 general election.

      The money laundering inquiry is timed perfectly to drag down the B.C. Liberals just as the opposition party will be trying to raise money and recruit high-profile candidates.

      Here's the best thing if you're an NDP politician: even if home prices aren't any more affordable in 2021 than they were in 2017, it may not matter come election time.

      That's because this inquiry could be enough to shift public attention onto the behaviour of the B.C. Liberals when they were ruling the province—and how they didn't do nearly as much as the NDP did to clamp down on dirty money in the economy.