For Nevada gaming companies grappling with a weak economy and a splintering market at home, the Asian casino boom has been a godsend. But it has left the Nevada Gaming Control Board facing difficult questions about how to confront the influence of Asian organized crime, both overseas and inside the state.
With no full-time staff in Asia and a mission that includes nurturing an industry increasingly dependent on China-controlled Macau, the granddaddy of U.S. gambling regulators may ultimately prove powerless to police a global business of which Las Vegas is no longer the capital, industry veterans said.
Though the Control Board can levy fines, ban employees and even revoke corporate licenses to operate gambling facilities in Las Vegas for misdeeds abroad, it has done little in the face of mounting evidence that Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International are relying on problematic business partners in Macau - and importing some of the region’s crime issues to the United States.
Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson controls Las Vegas Sands. He has made headlines by spending tens of millions of dollars on Republican efforts to unseat President Barack Obama.
At the heart of both matters are the so-called junket operators, who recruit, transport and offer credit to high rollers, mostly from China. Some control rooms for the VIPs inside the Macau casinos, and many have links to the Chinese criminal gangs known as triads, according to U.S. diplomats, intelligence officials and court testimony.
Nevada has allowed three people with ties to one Hong Kong junket company - which Hong Kong Stock Exchange documents show was partly financed by an alleged triad leader - to bring gamblers to Las Vegas casinos on commission. Those people, named in individual Nevada records, include the chairman of the company, Neptune Group Ltd.
Though such Asian recruiters are increasingly important to the casinos looking to lure Chinese big spenders, Nevada investigators privately concede that they are having a hard time establishing which of them have criminal connections. The casinos say all their business partners are approved by Macau or Nevada and that they eschew deals with proven criminals.
In one sign of mounting concern at home, Nevada Gaming Control Board member A.G. Burnett told Reuters that the panel is “exploring reinventing the whole junket representative process” because of concerns about its lack of transparency.
The expansion of the junkets prompted the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to issue guidance in August asking the casinos to record the identities of everyone gambling from a junket operator’s account.
Separately, U.S. prosecutors are investigating whether Sands has broken money-laundering or bribery laws. Wynn also has disclosed that it is the subject of an informal Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry into possible Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations.