[Correction of some of the conversions from Japanese Yen to MOP]
One of the most active voices defending the legalization of casinos in Japan is accused of having received bribes from a Shenzhen lottery company. A trip to Macau complicated everything…
The arrival of casinos in Japan has divided the local public opinion, and some cities, like Okinawa or Hokkaido, have already retreated in their intention to receive Integrated Resorts (IR), as they are called in that country, fearing their social repercussions.
But a recent, unexpected fact has heated the debate to the point that, according to the Reuters agency – which quoted unidentified sources – the government will delay part of the process involving the selection of casino-hosting cities.
The fact in question is the arrest of one of the deputies who fought the hardest for the adoption of the IRs, accused of having received bribes.
To understand the shock, consider that Tsukasa Akimoto, 48, is the first incumbent Japanese lawmaker to be indicted in several decades.
Mr. Akimoto has denied all accusations, but seems to be dealing with a problem that is difficult to get around: as far as the public is concerned, three of the people who collaborated with him confirmed receiving the bribes in exchange for favours.
Mr. Akimoto was arrested in late December, but was released on February 12 – after about a month-and-a-half in custody – after providing JPY 30 million (about MOP2.2 million) in bail.
What about Macau?
Mr. Akimoto has so far summed up three charges from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, the last one – on additional bribery charges – implying JPY 3.85 million (MOP286,285) in bribes. Of these JPY 3.85 million, about JPY 2 million (MOP148,736) reached Akimoto via a wire transfer and some travel expenses to Macau.
Tokyo authorities accuse a Shenzhen-based company, 500.com (NYSE: WBAI) of being the perpetrator of the corruption. 500.com, an online lottery operator, was planning to join a casino project in Japan.
That’s why three employees or consultants of 500.com in Japan were also indicted.
The second accusation made by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office relates to the casino chips allegedly provided at a Macau casino and to expensive brand goods gifted, during a December 2017 visit to the 500.com head office in Shenzhen and to Macau, to inspect a local casino.
According to the reports of police interrogations provided to The Japan Times by anonymous sources, while at a shopping mall in Macau during this trip, Akimoto asked 500.com to buy some products for him.
Furthermore, in that same context, the former member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has admitted to accepting the items from the company, but he said he had instructed a secretary to ensure that the travel costs would be paid for by his side.
“I was going to buy the items, worth more than JPY 100,000 (MOP7,436) in total, myself, but 500.com paid for them. This was within the scope of commonly accepted social norms”, Akimoto was quoted as telling the investigators. In another interrogation session he clarified that “I am not aware of any casino chips provided to me. I planned to purchase the brand goods myself, but the company ended up paying for them. I planned to return their hospitality at some point in time, so I don’t believe this can be considered a bribe.”
Even though the casino in question, which some Japanese press has identified as one of Melco’s units, has no relationship with 500.com, the prosecutors team has searched one of this company’s Japanese units in relation to the bribery scandal.
MOP 550 millions
Akimoto has been denying all charges since his initial arrest on Christmas Day.
The first accusation reveals he received JPY 2 millions on behalf of 500.com to deliver a keynote speech at a symposium in Naha City in August 2017.
Local Japan media outlets reported that the total value of the bribes which Mr. Akimoto is alleged to have received stands at JPY 7.6 millions (MOP 550 millions).
After being released on bail, Akimoto held a press conference to profess his innocence and announced that his intention to return to his duties as a lawmaker in the lower chamber of Japan’s Parliament, the House of Representatives, in March.
Akimoto, formerly with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was a Cabinet Office State Minister in charge of the government’s initiative to launch casino resorts, for about a year through to October 2018.
But Mr. Akimoto is also publicly recognized as a vocal supporter of the legalization of casinos.
500.com, established in 2001, presents itself as “a leading online sports lottery service provider in China, with an established and entrusted brand.”
“We act as an aggregator and processor of lottery purchase orders from our registered user accounts, and currently derive all of our substantial revenues from service fees paid to us by provincial sports lottery administration centers for the purchase orders of sports lottery products that are directed to such centers”, they explain.
500.com is among the first companies to provide online lottery services in China, and is one of the two entities that are authorized by the Ministry of Finance to provide online lottery sales services on behalf of the China Sports Lottery Administration Center.
Last February, the Director and CEO Zhengming Pan resigned his post.
In the statement to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, 500.com gave no reasons for Pan’s departure.
On December 31, just a few days after Akimoto’s arrest, Pan stepped down as the CEO in what was interpreted as a measure to allow an internal investigation to be conducted without any interference.
Some weeks later, 500.com revealed that it had temporarily suspended its operations in Sweden, as it failed to renew its license before its expiry, but no direct relationship has been established with the case in Japan.