Mon, Jul 08, 2013 - Page 9 News List

US casinos play Russian roulette in Macau

Pulling in four times as much annual revenue as Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined, Macau is the world’s undisputed gambling hub, but with big profits comes big risks in the form of organized crime and corruption

By Hannah Dreier  /  AP, LAS VEGAS, Nevada

While many of the more than 200 junket operators active in Macau are law-abiding, some have documented ties to organized crime.

The case of Cheung Chi-tai (張治太), a major investor in the publicly traded junket operator Neptune Group, is a prime example.

TRIAD VIOLENCE

In 2011, a Hong Kong appeals court judgement said Cheung was a “triad leader” who ordered the death of a casino dealer at Sands Macau. He had previously been identified as high-ranking gang figure in a 1992 US Senate report on Asian organized crime.

A witness testified that Cheung was “the person in charge” of one of the VIP rooms at the Sands Macau, the oldest of the Adelson’s Macau casinos.

He was not charged in the case, but a subordinate was sentenced for conspiracy to commit murder.

Operating off the books, junkets pay out winnings in Hong Kong dollars, widely accepted in Macau, which players can then move to another location. As a result, Macau is seen as a conduit for money flowing out of China, with wealthy individuals and corrupt officials suspected of transferring funds abroad.

The enclave has seen a spate of killings and kidnappings associated with debt collection, including one grisly case last year in which two men were stabbed to death in their four-star hotel room, discovered by a friend who had come to lend them the money they needed.

Las Vegas is also beginning to see occasional outbursts of triad violence.

In March, 26-year-old Bai Xiaoye began serving a life term for stabbing a man to death in a crowded karaoke bar near the Strip. Prosecutors said Bai was a martial-arts trained enforcer for Taiwan-based triad the Bamboo Union, sent to collect a US$10,000 gambling debt.

Last year, the US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network warned casinos to monitor junket operators and report suspicious activity. The warning followed media reports that Sands allowed a man named as a triad member in a congressional report to move a US$100,000 gambling credit from Las Vegas to one of its Macau casinos.

Today, US companies are tweaking their flagship Las Vegas casinos to look and operate more like Macau-style properties. The biggest casinos have imported Asian pop sensations, Chinese delicacies and baccarat, now Nevada’s biggest moneymaker. They have outfitted their hallways in red, a lucky color in Asian culture and set up Macau-style VIP rooms that employ junket operators catering to high-rollers.

Asian visitors now account for 9 percent of tourists to Las Vegas, up from 2 percent in 2008. The Strip is also preparing to welcome its first Asian-owned casino: a multibillion-dollar Chinese-themed extravaganza called Resorts World, complete with pandas and pagodas.

One reason casino bosses are dreaming up ways to lure Macau customers to Las Vegas is that Nevada imposes one-fifth of China’s 39 percent tax on winnings.

“They can make a lot more money from a big gambler here,” said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Unlike some other states, Nevada allows junket operators to work in casinos without the full suitability checks required for key employees. Some Hong Kong operators licensed in Nevada have been found unsuitable by other jurisdictions, including Singapore.

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