Ex-CEO and president of Great Canadian Gaming Corp. (TSX:GC) Rod Baker and his actress wife Ekaterina Baker avoided jail time after pleading guilty to two counts of violating Yukon’s Civil Emergency Measures Act by orchestrating a scheme to jump the COVID-19 immunization queue.
The Bakers were both fined $500 and will pay a combined $2,300 in penalties for failing to self-isolate upon arrival in Yukon January 21, and failing to behave in a manner consistent with their arrival declaration.
The wealthy couple flew on a private jet to Whitehorse and told officials they were there for tourism. But they failed to mention they had another charter flight booked January 21 to go to Beaver Creek, a remote Indigenous community that had set up a special vaccination clinic, to which they had pre-registered, claiming they were working at a local hotel.
The couple got their shots and departed quickly, only to be met by officials at Whitehorse airport where they were ticketed.
Baker tendered his resignation at Great Canadian days later. He is expected to cash in an estimated $28.7 million worth of shares from the sale of the company to private investment fund Apollo Global Management Inc.
The Bakers’ lawyer Jennifer Cunningham and Crown prosecutor Kelly McGill presented a joint submission for the sentence. The Bakers avoided jail time.
“A lot of people may feel a $500 is not enough but that’s the maximum that can be imposed here” outside of a maximum six-month prison sentence, said Chief Judge Michael Cozens.
“When the court is presented with a joint submission, the court has extremely limited ability to deviate from that submission,” save for if the administration of justice is deemed compromised or the proposal is contrary to the public interest, stated Cozens.
McGill said there are no similar cases where jail time has been issued for COVID-19 violations and as the maximum fine was set at $500.
McGill listed aggravating factors such as the premeditation of the scheme involving a “high level of deception” and the harm done to the community of Beaver Creek.
Janet Van der Meer of White River First Nation’s COVID-19 volunteer team submitted a victim impact statement. She said the community was “blindsided” by the Bakers who showed a “superiority complex” and a “disregard for human life.”
Van der Meer said the incident, which made world headlines, tarnished Beaver Creek and led to community members feeling unsafe at further vaccine clinics.
A mitigating factor in the submission was that the Bakers immediately took COVID-19 tests (negative) to show officials no physical harm would result.
As well, the Bakers donated $5,000 to the COVAX global immunization initiative.
Cunningham said the Bakers “apologize unreservedly for their actions,” although when asked by the judge if they wanted to address the court, they declined.
“Not to take any pity,” said Cunningham, but the Bakers faced intense negative media coverage — a mitigating factor in the submission.
Cozens suggested to the Bakers that the couple reach out directly to the First Nation and apologize directly. He mulled over the ability to issue a probationary order, which could include community service, but ultimately agreed with the joint submission.
“There was no physical harm but there was psychological harm,” acknowledged Cozens.
“Quite often [an apology] is one of the most important things that can be said.
“I will leave that with you.”
The Bakers’ actions prompted a sharp rebuke from B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry.
"They should be ashamed of themselves," said Henry January 25.
Baker ran Great Canadian’s flagship B.C. casino River Rock Casino and Resort during a time when money laundering is alleged to have grown exponentially. The matter is being examined at length at the Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in B.C.
The company routinely accepted bags of $20 bills for years but told the inquiry the matter was largely the responsibility of government regulators and investigators.
The inquiry heard how the company failed to report suspicious transactions to the federal reporting agency FINTRAC. The inquiry also heard how Baker opposed investigators at VIP tables.
The Bakers’ scheme has raised questions about how Rod Baker ran the then-publicly traded company.
“It’s a great question to be asking, but I don’t have the answer to that,” said Christie Stephenson, executive director of the Peter Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics.
But in general, said Stephenson, personal misconduct is a corporate risk.
“The abuse of power in a business leader’s personal life doesn’t necessarily mean there’s wrongdoing in the professional context, but it can certainly be a red flag,” said Stephenson.
“So people who don’t have strong ethics in their personal life could be a corporate risk, frankly because they may be less capable of understanding the types of negative consequences that their business operations have on particularly vulnerable populations and therefore purposefully or inadvertently engage in behaviour that’s not appropriate,” said Stephenson.
The RCMP has contended the money that flowed through casinos came from the deadly opioid trade and was facilitated by a Chinese transnational organized crime network working with Mexican cartels and local drug-dealing gangs.