Macau casino junket figure faces HK money laundering charges

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police charged a prominent figure in Macau’s casino junket industry with laundering 1.8 billion Hong Kong dollars ($231 million) through bank accounts in the southern Chinese city.

Cheung Chi-tai is facing three separate counts of money laundering, according to a charge sheet provided Friday by authorities.

The businessman was a major investor in publicly traded Macau junket operator Neptune Group. Police in Hong Kong, an hour’s ferry ride from Macau, have been investigating him since November, when they were granted a court order freezing his assets under the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance.

Cheung has been dogged by allegations of ties to Chinese organized criminal gangs, known as triads.

The 54-year-old was named as one of nine top lieutenants of the Wo Hop To triad in a 1992 U.S. Senate subcommittee report on Asian organized crime. In a 2011 Hong Kong court case, a witness identified him as a triad leader who ordered a subordinate to kill a Sands Macau casino dealer. He’s never been charged with any related crimes.

Junkets are middlemen that arrange for wealthy mainland Chinese gamblers to travel to Macau, lend them money to gamble and then collect any debts when they return home. However, because casino debts are unenforceable on the mainland, there are suspicions that some junket operators work with organized crime to collect debts.

In a 2013 Hong Kong money laundering trial involving Cheung’s former business associate Carson Yeung, Cheung was named as one of the main shareholders of Neptune Group. Yeung, the former owner of Birmingham City Football Club, said Cheung invited him to invest in the company and its associated VIP gambling rooms.

Hong Kong stock exchange filings show Cheung, through his private holding company Jumbo Boom, owned as much as 12.9 percent of Neptune in 2007 but had sold off his stake by September 2008.

Macau, a former Portuguese colony that’s now a specially administered Chinese region, is the only place in China where casinos are legal. The enclave’s economy has boomed over the past decade after authorities opened up the market to outside operators such as Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts. But casino revenues are slumping and junket operators are coming under increasing scrutiny amid a corruption crackdown by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

According to the charge sheet, Cheung faces three counts of “dealing with property known or believed to represent proceeds of an indictable offence,” which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

He was released on HK$200,000 bail and is due back in court in September.

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