Former junket boss Alvin Chau Cheok Wa has introduced gamblers for years to side betting operations in casinos, the Court of First Instance heard on Thursday (today)
The remarks were made by Cheong Chi Kin, one of the defendants alongside Mr Chau in the case linked to the now-defunct junket operator Suncity Group.
But Mr Cheong declined on Thursday to unveil the details of the shareholders behind the side betting companies he managed, reasoning: “I don’t want to implicate more people.”
A total of 21 defendants, including Messrs Chau and Cheong, are indicted for illicit gambling activities, involvement in a criminal syndicate, fraud, and money laundering, causing the Macau SAR government a loss of HK$8.2 billion (US$1 billion) in gaming tax revenue between March 2013 and March 2021, as well as losses for the city’s gaming operators.
Since this high-profile trial began on Monday, the name of Mr Cheong has been repeated almost as many times as Mr Chau, the boss of Suncity Group. The former is accused by the Macau Public Prosecutions Office as the person in charge of the under-the-table betting business for Suncity, but Mr Chau has denied in the past few days that Mr Cheong was an employee of his group, and neither his firm nor he was involved in under-the-table betting.
Under-the-table betting, or also known as side betting or multiplier, usually refers to a form of gambling, in which a bet formally denominated at the casino gambling tables only represents a fraction of the amount of a private bet made between gamblers and junket operators to avoid gaming revenue levies.
Finally taking the stand on Thursday, Mr Cheong admitted frankly he engaged in side betting, but he was only a junket agent that brought high rollers to Suncity VIP rooms. His companies involved in under-the-table betting were not linked to the now-defunct junket operator, he added.
After grilled repeatedly by prosecutor Lai U Hou about his relationship with Mr Chau and the junket operator, Mr Cheong’s initial stance, however, seemed to fall apart. He acknowledged he had a meeting with the casino mogul in 2013, in which he provided suggestions to Mr Chau to minimise the size of crowds in the Suncity VIP rooms as there were “too many people” engaging in side betting in the venues.
“I asked him [Mr Chau] if there were any gamblers interested in side betting he could refer them to me. And he said yes,” he told the court.
Asked by the prosecutor whether this means Mr Chau gave him permission to conduct side betting, he responded: “The entire city was doing this, so it’s not really whether he [Mr Chau] had to give permission. He knew I was doing side betting in his [VIP rooms].”
In several phone messages presented to the court between them dated 2020 and 2021, Mr Cheong greeted the junket mogul as “the boss”. Grilled by the prosecutor whether Mr Chau was the mastermind behind the side betting operations, he retorted, “I think all the Macau junket agents call him ‘the boss’.”
Another set of documents shown in the court on Thursday also showed the administrative procedures of the companies of Mr Cheong were assisted and attended by the accounting and human resources staff of Suncity. Trying to explain the situation, he only said these workers were provided by Philip Wong Pak Ling, the former head of Suncity’s finance department, when he asked the latter for help. Mr Wong is also a defendant in this case.
The prosecutor later put forward another transcript of phone messages, in which Mr Cheong reported to Mr Chau the monthly financial details of one of his side betting firms “New Operation”.
Running the side betting operations, he and his subordinates had to deposit “a lot of money” in the accounts of Suncity’s VIP rooms, he explained.
“In 2019 and onwards, many of my subordinates did not want to be involved in under-the-table betting anymore and wanted to take money out from the VIP rooms,” he continued. “Suncity had also started to experience a shortage in liquidity at that time… so I had started to report to [Mr Chau] every month the financial details [of the firm].”
“I don’t know”
Prior to Mr Cheong taking to the stand, Mr Chau also spoke briefly on Thursday in response to the testimony of another defendant on Wednesday (yesterday), Suncity’s IT vice-president Celestino Ali.
“I did not ask Ali Celestino to make an under-the-table operational system for Cheong Chi Kin,” the casino mogul said. “I’m not aware of any operational systems dedicated to under-the-table betting.”
“Both the new and old multifunctional IT systems of Suncity… did not have any data about under-the-table betting,” he added.
Mr Ali testified on Wednesday the multifunctional IT system of Suncity once had data about side betting when he joined the firm in 2013. The Suncity IT team later also came up with a new operational system for Mr. Cheong, named “Opsman”, in which the latter could check data about side betting.
Asked on Thursday why he devised a new system for Mr. Cheong, the Suncity IT head said he thought Mr. Cheong was a shareholder of the firm, which had “many shareholders” besides Mr Chau.
Part of the hearing on Thursday also focused on the shareholding structure of the side betting companies Mr Cheong managed, namely, “New Operation”. According to the documents displayed in the court, there were a number of subdivisions under “New Operation”, including “Main Camp (主太營)”, “New Little Lei (新小李)”, “Forever Prosperity (永富)”, “Gambling Macau (博濠)” and others.
One of the documents presented said that Mr Cheong held a 18-per cent stake in “New Little Lei”, while “Fong Gor” and “Tim Gor” held interests of 2 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. He later identified “Fong Gor” as Lou Seak Fong, senior vice-president of market development of Suncity, and “Tim Gor” as Tim Chau Chun Hee, executive director of local media-and-travel firm UO Group. Both are defendants in this case.
But he did not identify “Tat Gor” who was said to hold one-third of the shares of “New Little Lei”.
Mr Cheong also declined to reveal details of “Main Camp” on Thursday. “‘Main Camp’ had existed in Macau for so long and there were different shareholders in different stages,” he told the court. “I don’t want to implicate more people. I won’t answer this question.”
According to the official indictment, Mr Chau is said to head ‘Main Camp’ to conduct under-the-table business in his VIP rooms.
Mr Cheong only revealed further that his side betting business was not only limited to Macau casinos, but also casinos in Manila, the Philippines and resorts in Genting, a Malaysia-based multinational gaming operator.
Separately, Lou Ieng Ha, who heads a three-judge panel in charge of this high-profile trial, ruled last Friday that the criminal and civil proceedings of this case should be handled separately, so that the hearing would not be delayed by the civil procedures.
Five of the city’s six gaming operators — all except Melco Resorts and Entertainment — are complainants in the case, filing damage claims against some of the defendants, including Mr Chau. According to the previous information provided by the court, the amount of claims from the operators totalled at least HK$1.27 billion as the operators were said to lose as much as HK$2.28 billion in gaming revenue between March 2013 and March 2021.
Judge Lou suggested on Thursday to legal counsels of the gaming operators that following this decision, they could file separate civil lawsuits to seek for compensations, or the current court can set an amount of compensations for each of them when the criminal proceedings of this case wrap up.
The operators could reserve rights to continue filing separate civil lawsuits if they deem the compensation amount is too low, she added.
The trial continues on Friday (tomorrow).