As gold fever hits Macau, Ho's still in the money
MGM Mirage sees the green as evangelicals see red
The prohibitionist cult in America that has wreaked havoc on foreign gambling companies recently turned its guns on one of America’s own – casino behemoth MGM Mirage, the second largest gambling company in the world.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which was snuck onto an unrelated port security bill in the dead of night by conservative former Senate majority leader Bill Frist last September, has yet even to take effect – and it won’t until June of this year.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) nonetheless has expended considerable resources attacking foreign-based online gambling companies and their business affiliates through various older, mafia-oriented statutes covering wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering. This week's developments notwithstanding, the aggressive approach comes with a veneer of national security concern laminated to it, and has generally been received with derision outside of the DOJ itself.
Much as the narco-traffickers of the recent past have been repackaged for the post- 9/11 media as narco-terrorists, in spite of the fact that their behaviors and business models remain identical to what they were before, the DOJ has tried, among other things, to tar the online gambling companies as vehicles for terrorist financing and money laundering.
Since the DOJ has spent most of its time and resources flailing around at publicly listed companies, which are subject to stringent – not to mention public - auditing procedures, and whose every wager is accounted for electronically, the accusations have largely rung hollow.
Although it’s true that traditional, cash-based casinos can be excellent laundering venues, the electronic transactions of the online companies are easier to track and far less susceptible to manipulation than the large cash transactions of a “bricks and mortar” casino. So why go online to launder money when you can clean it up the fun way, over a couple drinks with old fashioned cash?
In fact, the casinos of Macau, the hottest gambling jurisdiction on the planet right now, have long been used for just that, and a recently formed American evangelical anti-gambling group has made it its mission to utilize that shabby history to scuttle a massive joint venture between the MGM Mirage and its well connected Macanese partner.
Priests, pirates and prostitutes
Macau is popularly known as the land of priests, pirates and prostitutes. Russian prostitutes run out of Vladivostok by one time KGB agents turned gangsters are the preferred delicacy of the Macanese elite.
The history of casinos in Macau, however, is inextricably intertwined with a web of companies controlled by Stanley Ho, the richest man in Macau, and one of the richest in all of Asia. Hong Kong, where Ho resides, did not prohibit polygamy until 1971, and the spoils of that financial empire have been split among Ho, his three wives, and his seventeen children.
As recently as 2002, Ho-connected companies accounted for an astounding two-thirds of Macau’s GDP.
He was born into a once-wealthy Eurasian family in Hong Kong with deep roots in the opium trade, but fled almost penniless to neutral Macau in 1941 after the Japanese took control of Hong Kong. As legend has it, he made his first million by fighting off a pirate attack on the Pearl River delta while transporting contraband between Hong Kong and Macau, as a kind of reward for his heroic service.
He made his move in 1961. In a twist that would both launch his career and come to haunt him decades later, he and his business partners, which at the time included Yip Hon, an alleged triad leader and heroin trafficker, borrowed the seed money from his sister Winnie Ho to take control of Macau’s casino monopoly.
He controlled Macau’s casino concession for nearly 40 years thereafter.
According to a formerly confidential 309 page dossier on Ho prepared for an American state gambling commission - and recently published online by a new, anti-gambling American evangelical organization calling itself the Family Focus Coalition - Ho’s had quite a run.
This astonishing set of documents, which includes both confidential intelligence reports and news clippings, details decades worth of business dealings. Ho, who has never been charged with a crime, is accused of involvement in everything from laundering money to funding the North Korean nuclear project to good old-fashioned stock fraud.
Shunned in his attempts to extend his casino holdings to other jurisdictions like Canada and Australia, Ho invested $30m in 1999 to build the money-losing Casino Pyongyang, and his close relationship to Kim Jong Il even led him to act rather bizarrely as an intermediary in the run up to the Iraq War.
The Times of India reported at the time that Ho claimed that "high level North Korean officials have offered Saddam and his family 11th hour sanctuary in a mountain in North Korea." Ho went on to say that Kim "told me that there really was a chance to revent a war and they said that Saddam Hussein could step down before the US and the British start to bomb Iraq and he could call democratic elections." According to Ho, "one of the conditions of those elections would be that none of the candidates would be allowed funding from the US, ensuring that there would be no US interference in a future democratic Iraqi state. Anyone who did accept money from the US would be shot."
According to Ho, the North Korean leader, in his unaccustomed role as peacemaker, offered Saddam's family an entire mountain of their own. No dice.
Ho’s bank, the Seng Heng, has repeatedly been accused of acting as a major money laundering point for the North Korean government. In 2005, after considerable investigation by the American government for involvement in passing North Korean counterfeit money, as well as money laundering, it narrowly avoided being blacklisted from the international financial system by the Treasury Department under section 311 of the Patriot Act. Ho's longstanding relations with North Korea date to his smuggling days, when he circumvented the UN embargo to bring Chinese goods to North Korea during the Korean War.
VIP means all access
Legendary Macau gangster Broken Tooth Koi, now in prison, at one time leased a VIP room from the Hotel Lisboa, Ho's flagship gambling enterprise. The VIP rooms created an entire subclass of the Hong Kong economy organized around travel junkets to the Macau casinos by Hong Kong gamblers, where they could be serviced by prostitutes and plied with drugs or whatever else they needed.
The structure of Ho’s casinos, in which VIP rooms were illicitly leased to local triads, provided an easy forum for prostitution, money laundering and loan sharking, and the house itself functioned as an unlicensed bank, extending credit to gangsters when needed.
Money changers across the border in Zhuhai provided ready access to a Chinese version of the Middle Eastern halawa system, in which Chinese Renminbi could be exchanged for casino chips or, if needed, a casino check payable to cash, without cash ever being transported across the border. Estimates of just how much money was laundered through these unregulated schemes have ranged as high as $70bn per year, prompting concern on the Chinese side about the drain of hard currency.
Unlike most businesses, the moral doubts surrounding the gambling industry lead its regulators to extend their investigations around the globe – MGM Mirage, for example, could lose its license in Nevada or New Jersey if regulators in those jurisdictions determine that the company had linked up with an “unsuitable” partner, whereever that might be.
The Rev. Gary Kellner, founder of the Family Focus Coalition, is counting on that to derail the joint venture between MGM Mirage and Ho-controlled SMTB, which is now officially run by his daughter, Pansy Ho. Kellner has been firing off letters and phone calls to gaming authorities in Nevada and New Jersey, hoping to put enough pressure on MGM Mirage to force it out of Macau. Although Pansy has a sketchy enough history of her own, she has admitted to borrowing much of her stake in the project from her father.
As Kellner put it to Matt Ward of the Las Vegas Business Press "We are giving Stanley Ho, who is in bed with a rogue terrorist nation of North Korea, which our own president says is a part of the 'Axis of Evil,' a license to print money, All I want to do is make sure the facts are known. That people who have the ability to investigate this have the facts and are asking the right questions."
According to the Las Vegas Business Press, Pansy’s attorney John O’Reilly went ballistic when a reporter from the paper questioned him about the authenticity of the documents after a hearing by the Nevada Gaming Control Board on Pansy’s suitability.
"You lost that chance when you published that garbage without calling anybody," he allegedly yelled at a reporter when asked for comment.
DOJ feeding frenzy chews up smaller fry
The DOJ has focused its prosecutorial zeal the last few months on listed online companies and their enablers, which in terms of overall wealth are still dwarfed by Ho’s Macau offerings.
Ho, who, along with business partner Ng Lap Seng, was at the center of the Clinton-Gore Chinese fundraising scandal a few years back, has always managed skillfully to utilize his abundant political contacts to insulate himself from trouble. His legendary political connections in both Hong Kong and the mainland have made him untouchable – apparently even to the DOJ.
The closest anyone has gotten to Ho has been his own sister Winnie, who put up the original money for the concession back in 1961, and sued him in 2001 for squeezing her almost completely out of the family company. In a lawsuit that rocked Hong Kong, Winnie claimed that Stanley had blackmailed her for years to conceal the fact that her son was actually the product of an illicit affair with their cousin, noted Hong Kong philanthropist Sir Eric Hotung.
Winnie managed the family casino business for years, and the lawsuit provided a rare view on the inner workings of Ho’s secretive family companies, supporting much of what had been only rumor or innuendo.
As if that weren't enough, Winnie chose to intervene through a San Francisco attorney as a surprise witness against her brother at the March 22 Nevada Gaming Commision's special hearing concerning the MGM-Ho deal, according to the Las Vegas Business Press. The spokesman apparently read a highly critical statement and introduced new documentary evidence into the public record, although at time of writing we still don't know either the exact contents of the statement or the additional evidence introduced.
Egged on by the evangelicals, the New Jersey Republican party has also started to put political pressure on the New Jersey Casino Control Commission to can the $1.1bn project.
If the Reverend Kellner has his way, MGM Mirage will be forced to eat crow on a deal in which it has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars. Whether the DOJ will hold Stanley Ho to the same standards as the online companies it has so eagerly eviscerated in the past year remains to be seen. ®
Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office