Regional pubs and clubs have been the target of criminal gangs who are using poker machines to launder the proceeds of illegal drug dealing and prostitution.

The ABC reports that tens of thousands of dollars have been put into the machines in a single sitting, with the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority’s data monitoring system identifying suspicious transactions and pubs and clubs in Cessnock, Maitland, Queanbeyan-Palerang, Coffs Harbor and Bland local government areas.

These are in addition to $5.5 million worth of suspicious transactions detected at poker machines across 180 venues in Sydney since the city came out of lockdown in early October, a figure that is growing at the rate of $1 million a week. “I would endeavour to say it could easily be double that and over an annual period, I’d suggest it’s in the hundreds of millions,” ILGA director of investigations David Byrne said.

Money laundering can occur in a number of different ways.

One method is where a gambler puts “dirty” money made through illegal activity into a poker machine only to make a small number of bets and then cash the rest of the now “clean” money out on a ticket.

While that may be done by groups of organised criminals, Mr Byrne believes there are also instances of gangs taking advantage of gambling addicts.

“It’s the epitome of exploitation,” Byrne said.

“You’ve got someone who’s very vulnerable, it’s almost like child labour because they’re so desperate they’ll do anything. “So people could sit there in front of a machine and launder cash for an organised group for a very small amount of money in commission.”

Two suspected incidents were detailed to the ABC and have been referred to police for further investigation.

One involves a club in the state’s south where 25 suspicious plays of more than $1,400 each were put into different machines and cashed out only minutes later.

Another took place in a small club in far western NSW, where it is believed that over the course of one weekend a group of bikies put tens of thousands of dollars through the pokies, making a small number of bets before withdrawing the rest of the money on a ticket.

Of the five local government areas identified by the gaming authority, Bland Shire Council is by far the smallest, with a population of only 6,000.

Mayor Brian Monaghan said he was shocked to learn there could be money laundering occurring there.

“We would be supportive of law enforcement dealing with any money laundering issues,” he said.

Organised criminals moving into state’s west

The head of NSW Police’s organised crime squad, Detective Superintendent Rob Critchlow, said organised crime gangs were increasingly moving into regional areas.

“We’re seeing more and more serious crime being committed in the far west of NSW by crime groups probably avoiding some of the attention from groups like Strike Force Raptor and our squads,” he said.

“They’re going out to Bathurst and as far west as Bourke and those areas to set up large-scale clandestine drug labs and large-scale cultivation of cannabis and some greenhouses, massive jobs involving organised crime groups.

“All those projects, all those crimes generate vast amounts of cash and it’s got to be washed and laundered before it can be utilised by those groups.”

Superintendent Critchlow said several large drug busts had recently been conducted on the Hay Plains in southern NSW.

Data collection exposed decades-old problem

The head of the Liquor and Gaming Authority’s investigations, David Byrne, said he was not surprised the data had shown up possible money laundering in small regional pubs and clubs.

“I’ve got a long background in law enforcement, and it’s been used as a method for a long, long time,” he said.

“What we’ve been able to do is utilise the data and the technology that’s available to us now, that we didn’t have 20 or 30 years ago, to our advantage, to identify those instances and then action and investigate them.”

He said investigators would be visiting regional areas.

“We’ll be attending those venues and obtaining CCTV footage, reviewing it, corroborating the data and confirming or denying whether or not it’s actually money laundering or dealing in proceeds of crime,” he said.

He said any evidence would be referred to the police.

Both Mr Byrne and Superintendent Critchlow agree there is a need for a public inquiry into pokies and money laundering at pubs and clubs, similar to the Bergin inquiry into casinos.

The ABC approached the Australian Hotels Association and ClubsNSW for comment.

A spokesperson for the NSW government said it was giving the issues raised around money laundering in pubs and clubs “careful consideration”.

“The NSW government will work with law enforcement agencies and stakeholders to fix any flaws in the system and ensure offenders are caught and prosecuted,” they said.