Friday, January 14, 2011

Leadership races both entering important phase

The Liberal and NDP races are both finally under way, but much of the work right now is behind the scenes, as candidates scramble to sign up new party members who will support them.
That's critical, especially for the New Democrat hopefuls. Their leadership ballot is April 17; to be able to vote, people have to be party members by Jan. 17. The Liberal contest is Feb. 26, but anyone who joins by Feb. 4 will be able to vote
So the serious candidates and their camps are rushing to sign up new members. A few thousand new party members - if they vote - could tip the balance.
It's striking how much the leadership campaigns have come to resemble election campaigns, with pollsters, full-time staff and - paid or not - and tightly scripted agendas.
It's also striking, especially on the Liberal side, how important lobbyists and government relations consultants are to the candidates' efforts.
The practitioners increasingly move from lobbying politicians to helping them raise money or win elections or leadership races and then back to lobbying the same politicians.
Take the well-connected Progressive Group. The firm's Patrick Kinsella, of B.C. Rail fame, is helping Christy Clark. Mark Jiles, also of the Progressive Group, is assisting George Abbott's campaign, as is Sarah Weddell of National Public Relations, another company that sells companies advice on getting government to see things their way.
And the emails I get from Kevin Falcon's campaign come from the Pace Group. Norman Stowe, its managing partner is supporting Falcon; the company's vice-president for media relations is handling communications for the leadership contest. The Pace Group has millions of dollars worth of government contracts and advises others on dealing with governments.
And it's striking how much money these campaigns will cost. The New Democrats have set a campaign spending limit of $175,000 for candidates; the Liberals are rumoured to be imposing a $450,000 limit per candidate.
The parties also differ on donations.
The New Democrats have set a $2,500 limit on contributions. The idea is that large donations can create real or perceived conflicts of interest - that a successful candidate will be indebted to big backers, or that shape his actions to suit them.
The Liberals have no limits. A single business, for example, could entirely fund the campaign of the leadership candidate of its choice.
Both parties have to live by the Elections Act, which requires public disclosure of donations.
But the New Democrats have added a useful refinement. Candidates will have to publicly report all donations of more than $250 before party members vote.
That's a much more meaningful measure. If the sources of a candidates' cash cause concern, members will have a chance to ask questions and consider the issue before voting.
Once the membership sign-up deadlines are past, the leadership candidates will turn to courting the current party faithful, setting out a platform that differentiates them from their rivals and trying to show they are popular enough to win the next election.
The last task is important. It's one thing to appeal to people already in your party's camp. But most sensible party members will be looking for candidate who can win the next election, not one who offers the prospect of a noble defeat.
At this point, that might be good news for George Abbott, particularly if Christy Clark and Kevin Falcon end up running hard against each other and raise the fear of divisions in the party.
It's harder to figure out which New Democrat offers the best prospects for electoral success. John Horgan, Mike Farnworth and, likely, Adrian Dix, are credible candidates. (Harry Lali and Nicholas Simons are unlikely likely to persuade Liberal voters that they offer a better plan for the province.)
And none of the main NDP candidates represents renewal - Dix, Farnworth, Horgan and Lali are all associated with the discredited New Democrat government of the 1990s.
Footnote: The challenge for candidates in both parties is to stake out a distinctive position without attacking other hopefuls. That's important both to keep the party united and because no candidate is likely to get a majority on the first ballot; alienating supporters of other candidates could be costly.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Casino money laundering suspicious cases soar

Criminals love casinos. They're great places for loan sharking and passing counterfeit money.
And even more important for the serious crooks, casinos are the easiest place to launder money.
The CBC used freedom of information requests to learn that millions of dollars in suspicious transactions flowed through two B.C. casinos in three months last year. The casino companies told B.C. Lotteries, but no one passed the information on to police immediately.
These aren't slightly suspicious transactions. In one case, a man entered a New Westminster casino with $1.2 million worth of chips. He didn't place a bet. He just turned them in and took the money in cash.
He told staff he was boarding a flight and was concerned the money might look suspicious. So the casino gave him a letter confirming the money was a casino payout.
It's a classic money-laundering scenario. Crime - drug dealing, robbery, whatever - can produce lots of cash. Banks have to report deposits of more than $10,000 to FINTRAC, a federal agency that fights money laundering and organized crime. Even if money is broken into smaller deposits to come under the limit, a criminal might end up having to explain where all the money came from.
Instead, criminals can buy chips in casinos, cash them in and get a cheque or, in this case, cash with a letter suggesting they were winnings. The money is clean.
In another case uncovered by the CBC, a man entered a Richmond casino with a bag stuffed with $460,000 in $20 bills and bought chips. The casino reported that there was nothing suspicious in the transaction.
All told, there were 90 large transactions worth $8 million in three months.
The RCMP only learned about this after the fact. Insp. Barry Baxter, with the unit that tracks the proceeds of crime, said the police suspect money laundering. "The common person would say this stinks," he said.
Casinos also have to report large transactions to FINTRAC, the federal Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre, and also report to police and the province's Gaming Policy Enforcement Branch. But the reports aren't required for 30 days; a quick first step would be to require immediate reporting to police.
Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for gambling, initially downplayed the reports. He later promised an investigation.
But none of this is surprising.
The government's Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch 2006 annual report, for example, warned of a crime explosion at casinos, with investigations into offences like loan sharking and money laundering more than doubling in a year.
Last year, it was revealed B.C. Lotteries had been fined $670,000 under federal laws aimed at combating money laundering and terrorism financing. There were more than 1,000 infractions; in eight cases, the most basic information wasn't collected when people walked out of casinos with more than $10,000.
FINTRAC said fines are only imposed for a "persistent, chronic failure to comply with the law."
Despite the warnings, enforcement has been minimal. In 2009, the government shut down the five-year-old specialized police unit created to target gambling-related crime.
And the enforcement branch's just-released annual report for the 2009-10 fiscal year reveals that it opened 635 investigations into money laundering, loan sharking and counterfeit offences in casinos, without laying a single charge.
Again, none of this is surprising. Casinos want to make money. Coleman and B.C. Lotteries are responsible for increasing the number of gamblers in the province, the average amount each one loses and the province's take.
Cracking down on transactions that could be linked to money laundering is a threat to those goals. Casinos fear that asking for information from big gamblers could drive away some of their best customers.
The obvious, and long overdue, first step is end the inherent conflict in having one minister responsible both for promoting gambling losses and fighting crime in casinos.
Footnote: The CBC reported that reports to FINTRAC showed that while the dollar value of suspicious transactions at casinos in other provinces stayed the same or went down in the past year, they tripled in B.C.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A lot more oversight for fish farm industry

The Times Colonist has an interesting editorial looking at the shift of most responsibilities for the fish-farm infustry from the provincial to federal government as a result of a lawsuit.
The numbers tell the story. The federal DFO is adding 52 positions in B.C. — most on the Island — to monitor the farms, enforce regulations, share information and develop managememnt policy.
The provincial government is eliminating 13 positions as a result of the shift.
The feds are committing four times as many people to do the same work.
The editorial is here.