Les Leyne: No more secrets on who holds property titles

The two lengthy reports on how serious B.C.’s money laundering problem is both dwell on the lack of transparency in real estate ownership.

But one of the key moves to correct that is already in the works. It’s a bill requiring full disclosure of the identities of the real people who control the companies that own real estate in B.C.

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When Bill 23, the Land Owner Transparency Act — becomes law, the masks that some individuals use to disguise their holdings through faceless corporations will be pulled down. That would be a badly-needed entry way for authorities into the labyrinth where dirty money is converted into titles to real estate.

Finance Minister Carole James described it as commitment to end hidden ownership through shell companies, trusts and partnerships.

Just as individuals have to register land title ownership and transfers, corporations do the same. The new law requires them to list names, home addresses, citizenship and social insurance numbers of individuals behind the corporate entities holding title — the beneficial ownership.

Basic details will be available to the public. More sensitive information will be available to law enforcement, tax officials and some regulators, to help address tax fraud and money laundering.

It will be a scant start on the job of beefing up B.C.’s investigatory powers and the data analytic horsepower needed to get a handle on money laundering. James cited figures from the watchdog group Transparency International Canada showing almost one third of the 100 most expensive homes in Vancouver were owned by shell companies.

“That statistic alone raises all kinds of concerns,” she told the house.

Although the B.C. Liberal opposition is suspicious the powers will be expanded and used to chase more tax revenue, they support the bill and it is assured passage.

Various groups in the real estate industry also support the bill. The Urban Development Institute has warned it will add substantial costs and delays to deals, but it still supports the change in principle.

Proceeds of crime expert Peter German’s report on the real estate industry last week found more than 92,000 B.C. properties are owned by corporations. One of them appears ripe for analysis once the new law is in place.

German cited a company registered in the British Virgin Islands that owns a $3.5 million property in the Gulf Islands, one of six in the islands owned by companies registered there. It was acquired with funds allegedly embezzled from an Indian bank fraud. Criminal proceedings are underway but the property seems to be out of reach of Indian authorities, he said.

Of all the things driving money laundering in B.C., the lack of transparency here is one of the key factors attracting it, he said.

The companion report from the expert panel chaired by Maureen Maloney made that case even more emphatically.

“Disclosure of beneficial ownership is the single most important measure that can be taken,” the panel said.

It cited a metaphor used elsewhere, of money laundering happening down a rabbit hole that hides criminal money and avoids prosecution.

The idea is to attack the problem above ground, “by using tools that do not require finding the end of the rabbit hole.” Those tools include a huge upgrade in the expectations of the real estate industry to blow the whistle more often than it has. German was incredulous at the scant number of officially required “suspicious transaction reports” filed in that sector. Just 62 have been filed in the last four years, in a sector with tens of thousands of people processing billions in transactions.

“It is difficult to understand what causes such poor reporting; whether it is inadequate training, a fear of reporting, indifference to the process, or outright repudiation of the law,” he said.

The expert panel also concluded there was severe under-reporting in that sector.

It presented a vision of a new approach where several government agencies have vigilant new eyes looking for dirty money. Realtors, mortgage brokers and others have new reporting expectations imposed on them and the Finance Ministry has a new investigative team watching all.

The trick is to sustain the current level of interest in the problem over the long haul, in the face of other priorities, to make it happen.

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