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Gaming Guru

Jeff German
 

Malaysian leader's involvement in Vegas illegal gambling case a hot topic back home

13 January 2015

LAS VEGAS -- A top Malaysian government official and his ruling political party have come under fire in light of his intervention in a high-profile Las Vegas illegal sports betting case.

Opposition leaders in the Malaysian parliament have called on Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the minister of home affairs, to publicly explain why he became involved in the high-stakes gambling case. So far, Zahid, regarded as a potential prime minister, has stood silent.

Zahid’s portfolio includes intelligence and security services. On Dec. 18 he wrote Deputy FBI Director Mark Giuliano, rebutting FBI claims that the lead defendant in the case, wealthy Malaysian businessman Paul Phua, is tied to a powerful Chinese crime syndicate known as the 14K Triad.

Phua, 50, and son Darren Phua face criminal charges stemming from a sophisticated betting scheme federal prosecutors say accepted millions of dollars in wagers on the World Cup soccer tournament from an operation in luxury villas at Caesars Palace.

Zahid told Giuliano that lawyers for the elder Phua in Malaysia and in the United States informed him of the organized crime allegations and asked him to write the letter.

“As such, to assist both your department and Mr. Phua’s legal teams, based on our information, Mr. Phua is neither a member nor is he associated with the 14K Triad,” Zahid wrote.

He added that Phua has assisted the Malaysian government on projects affecting the country’s national security in the past.

Defense lawyers David Chesnoff and Thomas Goldstein, who say the government’s evidence of a triad tie is flimsy, filed a copy of Zahid’s letter in federal court on Dec. 29, but then withdrew it, saying federal prosecutors objected to its filing.

Neither Chesnoff nor the FBI would comment on the case Monday.

Media reports in Southeast Asia suggest the Malaysian government may have sought the withdrawal. Zahid and the Malaysian government have kept quiet since the letter became public.

The story spread throughout Southeast Asia after the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post followed on a Dec. 29 Review-Journal article. Local media there reported that Zahid did not consult Malaysia’s national police chief before writing the letter. One Malaysian news organization wrote that police were upset that Zahid appeared to disparage their work.

A former U.S. ambassador to Malaysia was quoted in the media joining the opposition party’s heavy criticism of Zahid, and Phua’s politically connected Malaysian lawyer at a news conference defended Zahid.

The trial of Phua, who is known on the worldwide professional poker circuit, and his son has been delayed while U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen decides whether FBI agents violated their constitutional rights by conducting a warrantless search in advance of a July 9 court-authorized raid at Caesars Palace.

The Phuas are free on a combined $2.5 million bail posted by Phil Ivey and another professional poker player. Five other defendants pleaded guilty last month, and charges against a sixth were dismissed.

Prosecutors said in court documents that Paul Phua is a ranking member of the 14K Triad and filed with the court FBI reports saying the Malaysian police in 2009 linked Phua and another key defendant in the case, Richard Yong, to the Hong Kong crime group.

Zahid made no reference to that evidence in his letter to Giuliano.

Yong, who has denied any triad ties, has pleaded guilty in the case. He received a hefty fine and was banned from the United States for his five years of probation. He has since left the country.

In November, the Review-Journal reported that FBI agents obtained evidence during the Caesars raid tying a reputed ranking member of another Chinese triad to the World Cup betting ring.

Documents seized by agents show a Macau casino junket company associated with Cheung Chi-Tai — whom authorities have identified as a leader of the Hong Kong Wo Hop To Triad — was among several companies the betting organization was believed to have used to settle up wagers with its wealthy customers.

Agents also found a photo of Cheung’s Hong Kong passport on a computer seized in the raid.

Defense lawyers denied ties between Cheung and the betting group.