They're the stories that tug at us.
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 – on Howe St. in downtown Vancouver.
According to the department, it had “a nearly 20-year history of knowingly processing payments related to fraudulent solicitation schemes.” U.S. officials shut it down last year.
In a 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.
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. Hansen added in later media interviews that the company had failed to pay their membership fees in January.
AdvantageBC 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.
Over the last decade the government extended the program into new industries, including the pharmaceutical industry, film distribution, wastewater treatment and fuel cell technology.
The 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."
Taylor credited Paul Fairweather, former head of AdvantageBC, for the idea.
Along with the program's morphing, came a rapidly escalating cost.
In the nine years from 1999 to 2007, the province forewent $26 million in potential tax revenue through the program. In the nine years since, $176.3 million.
Today, 66 members are listed on AdvantageBC's website. There may be more, as there's no obligation on the part of AdvantageBC to identify its members.
The 66 are not all unique companies. Three are part of HSBC Bank.
Despite Hansen's claims that “the program focuses mostly on companies in China,” only four of the 66 are based in that country and three are state-owned enterprises of the Chinese government.
Four of Canada's five big banks are members.
Westminster Management Corporation (WMC) – part of Lord Robert Iliffe's UK-based Yattendon Group – joined AdvantageBC in 2016.
Founded in 1925, WMC is a private real estate development and investment company.
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.
Sister companies of some members have run afoul of regulators and litigators both in Canada and the United States.
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 AdvantageBC board of directors represents the B.C. government.
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.
Information that only came to light after the New York Times sued AdvantageBC to get the numbers.
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?
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.
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.