Ho eyes another piece of the action

Mogul Stanley Ho, who lost his 40-year-old gambling monopoly in Macau two years ago, is looking for business in the Philippines

DPA , MANILA

Wed, Apr 07, 2004 - Page 16

Asia's gambling mogul Stanley Ho must have visited the Philippines numerous times already, but a recent trip set off alarm bells that he might be cooking up a plan to turn the country into a gamblers' paradise.

What raised the goat of anti-gambling advocates was a photograph in a Manila newspaper of a smiling Ho being received with outstretched arms upon his arrival by Dan Roleda, an aide of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Local media also reported that Ho met with Arroyo herself and got permission to invest in a casino in Clark, a former US airbase north of Manila.

While the government vehemently denied the newspaper reports, the controversy could be a potential headache for Arroyo, who is in the middle of a campaign to keep her job in elections in May.

Anti-gambling advocates, especially the influential Catholic Church, reminded Arroyo that she had vowed not to encourage the proliferation of gambling in the country.

She was also swept into power when her predecessor Joseph Estrada was ousted in January 2001 after being implicated in illegal gambling.

"People put her in power on expectations she would finally put an end to the culture of gambling, which has become so pervasive and corrupted even the highest office in the land," said Archbishop Oscar Cruz, a staunch anti-gambling campaigner.

Government spokesmen initially denied that Roleda was an aide of Arroyo in a bid to defuse the issue, but they eventually conceded he is a presidential assistant on foreign investments.

Deputy presidential spokesman Ricardo Saludo, however, insisted that Roleda's presence at Ho's arrival was purely ceremonial and that he did not discuss business with the magnate.

"There was no business transacted with Mr. Ho," he said. "It was just pure courtesy and certainly as presidential assistant on foreign investments, it would be well within Roleda's function to welcome big-named business people from abroad."

Saludo added that Ho was not in the country for business, but to receive an honorary doctorate degree from a lesser-known university in the city of Angeles in the northern province of Pampanga, the hometown of Arroyo.

In a country where gambling is synonymous with shady characters, illegal deals and a disgraced president, nobody seemed to be biting the official explanation.

The opposition newspaper The Daily Tribune said Ho, in close cooperation with officials of the Arroyo government, has been quietly expanding his gambling operations in the

Philippines.

The newspaper claimed that Ho was using dummies to prevent a repeat of the 1999 fiasco when his plan to set-up a floating casino in the capital was aborted by Estrada due to public outrage led by the Catholic Church.

"Rejected during the Estrada administration mainly due to concerns by various religious groups, Stanley Ho learned his lessons well," it said. "He used his business partners to make a comeback in order not be shoved again into the limelight."

Ho operated casinos in the Philippines during the 20-year rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, but was forced out when the strongman was ousted in 1986.

The magnate now appears to be more determined to return to the country, after losing his 40-year-old gambling monopoly in Macau two years ago.

According to reports, among Ho's alleged gambling interests in the country are the recently open casinos in Sheraton Marina Hotel in Manila, Fort Ilocandia resort in the northern province of Ilocos Norte and Philweb Corp, an Internet-based gaming firm.

Archbishop Cruz said Ho's recent visit also affirmed his renewed ties with the government-owned Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), the only institution allowed to operate casinos in the country.

Cruz said his reliable sources have confirmed that PAGCOR "is indeed a conduit of a good amount of money from the said gambling tycoon in form of investments."

"Mr. Ho is back in the Philippines through his investments in PAGCOR," he said. "You wouldn't see his name in any of these new casino operations, but he is there."

Cruz, who also received an honorary doctorate degree from the same university which honored Ho, returned the award to highlight his opposition to the tycoon's attempts to build a gambling empire in the Philippines.

"If Mr. Ho is determined to play big in the country, we are just as determined, if not more determined, to keep him out," he said.

"Gambling is a scam. It gives false hopes to poor Filipinos, and must be stopped."