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It's Disturbing Who The B.C. Government Is Giving Tax Breaks To

Some of the companies in the roster of members does make one wonder what the extent of the government's due diligence was before the tax breaks were extended.

08/23/2017 15:58 EDT | Updated 08/28/2017 14:55 EDT

They're the stories that tug at us when we read them.

Here's one from Waco, Texas: "My 86 year old mom... is losing her money to these people who promise her in order to accept her "sweepstakes" she has to keep sending them money for processing fees. She suffers from dementia and this company is taking advantage of her. Someone needs to find this company and make them stop abusing and taking money from the elderly."

Someone did — the U.S. Treasury Department. They found the company — PacNet Services, a payment processor — on Howe St. in downtown Vancouver.

ccording to the department, it had "a nearly 20-year history of knowingly processing payments related to fraudulent solicitation schemes." U.S. law enforcement officials shut PacNet down last year.

In an unusual plot twist, turns out the B.C. government was giving PacNet a 100 per cent corporate tax break on its international financial transactions, through the little-known International Business Activity program at AdvantageBC. The tax breaks kept coming and coming for PacNet too, going back to at least 2006.

Former finance minister — and now AdvantageBC CEO — Colin Hansen told the New York Times' Dan Levin in April that PacNet and two associated companies were no longer members.

The International Financial Centre BC (IFC), as AdvantageBC was once known, and its Quebec counterpart, Finance Montréal, trace their origins back to 1986, when the federal government established the International Banking Centre designation "to encourage the repatriation of non-resident loans booked in low-tax jurisdictions."

Unlike its Quebec counterpart, which stayed true to its financial services industry roots, AdvantageBC has morphed into the Frankenstein of tax breaks.

One person posted online: 'perhaps the group should be renamed Take Advantage of B.C.'

Over the last decade, the government extended the program into new industries, including the pharmaceutical industry, film distribution, carbon credit trading, green energy, wastewater treatment and fuel cell technology.

The added incentives kept getting sweeter and sweeter as well.

In the 2008 B.C. budget, then-finance minister Carole Taylor announced that the government intended "to phase out the capital tax on financial institutions by 2010," noting that "some obstacles are holding us back from becoming a more important centre for international finance." T

aylor credited Paul Fairweather, former head of the IFC, for the idea. Fairweather was looking to model Vancouver after Dublin as the place "to do international financial business."

TD Bank is a member of AdvantageBC. Its refund claim in 2012 was for $2.8 million. TD reported profits of $6.4 billion that year.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Signage is displayed on a Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) building in Toronto, Ont., on Friday, May 19, 2017.

The size of their claim is known only because the bank was a day late in getting its paperwork in and the claim was denied by the government, bringing new meaning to late fees.

TD Bank sued and, in April, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in its favour, ordering B.C.'s commissioner of income tax "to reconsider the bank's request for an extension to file its 2012 return."

Along with the program's morphing came a rapidly escalating cost.

From 1999 to 2007, the province forewent $26 million in corporate tax revenue through the program. In the nine years since, $176.3 million. AdvantageBC boasts an interesting assortment of members.

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In 2008, its website listed 61, but they were not all unique companies. Four were part of HSBC Bank. Today, 66 members are listed.

There may be more, as there's no obligation on the part of AdvantageBC to identify companies that are in the program. Hansen told the New York Times that "Some companies are a little more sensitive about being included."

Despite Hansen's claims that "the program focuses mostly on companies in China," only four of the 66 are based there and three are state-owned enterprises of the Chinese government.

Westminster Management Corporation (WMC), part of Lord Robert Iliffe's UK-based Yattendon Group, joined AdvantageBC in 2016.

Lord Iliffe, an active member of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts' Club, does well for himself through tax breaks.

In 2014, The Daily Mirror reported he was paid £195,000 "in benefits to meet housing costs for rented accommodation for tenants on low incomes."

The Canadian Press
Former B.C. finance minister ? and now AdvantageBC CEO ? Colin Hansen delivers the budget in the B.C. legislature in Victoria, B.C. Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011.

At the time, Lord Iliffe ranked 333rd on The Sunday Times rich list with wealth of £245 million.

Footloose might aptly describe a few of the members. It's a business term for "an operation that can be placed and located at any location without effect from factors such as resources or transport."

One moved from Bermuda to Burnaby to take advantage of the tax breaks, not the beaches.

Another, a U.S. hedge fund, used a shared office in Vancouver as its business address and a California business telephone number in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Not including PacNet and its two associated companies, four other members were among the Top 25 banks implicated in what became known as the Global Laundromat, a four-year scheme to launder $US20.8 billion in organized crime proceeds from Russia.

Unlike Finance Montréal, not a single member of the board of directors of AdvantageBC represents the government, even though AdvantageBC is a compulsory conduit to be eligible for the tax breaks.

At the very least PacNet should have set off some red flags for someone, years before failing to pay their dues this past January.

The organization takes a 0.45 per cent cut of the "income earned by the international business in the preceding year" to help finance its operations. In 2016, the cut accounted for $1,027,582 of the organization's funding. Membership fees brought in $78,845. Hansen is paid $189,000.

Some of the companies in the roster of members does make one wonder what the extent of the government's due diligence was before the tax breaks were extended.

At the very least PacNet should have set off some red flags for someone, years before failing to pay their dues this past January. It would have only taken a Google search to find the flags.

After reading the New York Times article and learning more about AdvantageBC, one person posted online: "perhaps the group should be renamed Take Advantage of B.C." He might have a point there.

CORRECTION:Due to an editorial error,a previous version of this story included a photo of Bill Barney, a former CEO of Pacnet. The company he once led is a different company from the PacNet profiled in the blog. This version has been corrected.

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