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Former gaming minister agrees 'unfair' to cop who said 'something stinky' at casinos

VANCOUVER — British Columbia's former gaming minister said comments he made more than a decade ago about a top-ranking financial crime investigator's concerns about "something stinky" going on at provincial casinos were not fair.

VANCOUVER — British Columbia's former gaming minister said comments he made more than a decade ago about a top-ranking financial crime investigator's concerns about "something stinky" going on at provincial casinos were not fair.

Rich Coleman was recalled to testify Friday at the public inquiry into money laundering to face more questions about statements he made in January 2011, disputing media comments by former RCMP inspector Barry Baxter.

"I probably got too broad in saying that," said Coleman, who is the inquiry's last witness. "I probably went a little too far out with my answer. It may have been unfair."

The former Liberal deputy premier said he was speaking for more than just himself when he told a CBC radio host he didn't believe Baxter's concerns about money laundering occurring at casinos and neither did any of his superiors at the RCMP.

"I should have used the word 'we' instead of 'I,'" said Coleman, adding Baxter's RCMP superiors never officially told him they disagreed with their officer.

He said when he was the minister he would more often refer to the entire ministry in the singular form when it should have been plural.

"I did not actually personally do these things," he said. "That would have been a conversation that would have taken place with an assistant deputy minister in my office. I think how I answered the questions about Mr. Baxter in my (earlier) testimony was honest and correct."

The New Democrat government appointed B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin Cullen in 2019 to lead the money laundering inquiry after four reports concluded the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal cash linked to organized crime impacted the province's real estate, luxury vehicle and gaming sectors.

Coleman, who was responsible for the gaming file off and on from 2001 to 2013, told the commission last month it was difficult to address money laundering at B.C. casinos directly because there were complex legal issues related to being able to prove suspicious cash at casinos was illegal money. 

He testified Friday he was caught off guard by media reports in 2011 quoting Baxter raising concerns about large amounts of suspicious cash likely tied to organized crime and money laundering appearing at Vancouver area casinos.

"What's not suspicious about $250,000 in twenties," Baxter told the Vancouver Sun in a January 2011 story. "The average person on the street would go, 'There's something stinky about that.'"

Coleman testified it was not general practice for RCMP officers to speak publicly about issues that could be under investigation and Baxter's comments didn't agree with information he had received from his officials.

"I can't go back 10-plus years," he said. "That was my feeling at the time. That was my opinion at the time."

Baxter told the media, police observed an incident at Richmond's River Rock Casino where a gambler arrived with $460,000 in $20 bills and purchased gaming chips, which he cashed in afterwards.

Coleman said he was told the person who purchased the chips was a known high-stakes gambler, whom officials at the casino and Crown-owned B.C. Lottery Corp. had cleared to play.

"Where did he get that bag of money?" asked commission lawyer Brock Martland.

Coleman said the process to establish the gambler's source of the cash was "fairly rigorous."

Baxter, who testified at the inquiry before Coleman's first testimony date, retired from the RCMP in 2015 after 34 years on the force.

He said he met with RCMP media handlers before his 2011 public statements about concerns over money laundering at B.C. casinos.

He testified he never spoke with Coleman before or after his statements.

"I was taken aback that he would report that supervisors of mine did not agree with me and my position that this was in fact money laundering," Baxter told the commission.

Since last spring, the commission has heard testimony from about 200 witnesses, including former B.C. premier Christy Clark, several former and current cabinet ministers, police officers, gaming officials and financial crime experts and academics.

Closing submissions are scheduled for July 6-8.

Cullen has until Dec. 15 to deliver his report, which will include recommendations.

_ By Dirk Meissner in Victoria

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2021.

The Canadian Press