Sat, Mar 21, 2015 - Page 15 News List

Japan, HK join Universal payments probe: sources

Reuters, TOKYO and BILOXI, Mississippi

Japan’s tax authorities have begun a review of how slot machine maker and casino developer Universal Entertainment accounted for US$40 million in payments made in 2010 to an associate of the Philippines’ top gambling regulator at that time, people with knowledge of the matter told reporters.

The review is part of a wider audit of the company’s books, the people said.

Separately, the payments are also a focus of a previously undisclosed criminal investigation by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, sources said. The commission has become involved because the transfers under review passed through bank accounts based in Hong Kong, those people said.

On Wednesday, Universal said in a statement that its US-based subsidiary, Aruze USA, had received a subpoena from a grand jury in the US that it believed was related to “suspicion” of bribery related to the payments. The company did not say when that subpoena had been received or where that federal grand jury was seated.

Universal said it believed it would not face charges in the US “as long as a fair and proper investigation is conducted.”

The statement by Universal was the first time the company had acknowledged a subpoena or confirmed the existence of a grand jury as part of the federal investigation.

The FBI has been investigating whether payments that originated in a bank account held by Aruze USA that were made in 2010 to Rodolfo Soriano, an associate of the then-head of the Philippine gaming regulator, constituted a violation of US anti-bribery laws, according to people with knowledge of the probe. At the time of the payments, Universal was seeking tax and other concessions related to a casino it is building on Manila Bay.

The Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation investigated the case as potential bribery but said it was suspending that probe because it did not have access to witnesses in Japan. Soriano did not respond to a request for comment.

Independent Commission Against Corruption spokesman Lewis Tam said the agency “would not comment on individual cases.”

The FBI declined to comment. A spokesman for Japan’s National Tax Agency said it was policy to not comment on specific cases.

In recent months, the FBI has continued to gather evidence and interview witnesses, sources have said. The FBI investigation has been under way since 2012.

In addition to the bribery question, the FBI has been examining whether an offered payout to a former Universal employee in Japan to stop cooperating with its investigation constituted obstruction of justice or witness tampering, people with knowledge of the matter said.

Japanese tax authorities began examining Universal’s accounting last year and this week went to the company’s headquarters near Tokyo Bay, sources said. The scope of the tax agency’s audit was not clear.

Universal has blamed the transfers on the unauthorized actions of former employees.

The company convened an outside panel of experts which found that while there was no evidence of bribery, the payments pointed to governance problems. Universal restated its accounting for the payments twice in 2013.

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