POSTSCRIPT / November 20, 2012 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Pagcor’s gambling city by the bay still feasible?

TOTAL REVIEW: It is becoming increasingly clear that a total review and audit should be made of the ambitious Gambling City that the Arroyo administration had planned to develop at the sprawling reclaimed area of Manila Bay.

By all indications, the current Aquino administration has decided to continue the project.

What commitments to foreign investors — and for how much — were made by the previous officials of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) who now appear sinking into a legal quagmire as more revelations are made of allegedly shady deals?

If dirty millions were indeed received by past Pagcor officials from favored foreign casino investors, how far up did the bribes go?

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SITE STABILITY: This corruption issue is aside from the other question of whether or not the Gambling City sprawls on stable ground. A thorough technical review may be needed. Many structures in the area have had some sections sinking, a problem that may worsen in time.

The possibility has been raised also that with creeping climate change and the engineering limitation of reclamation, the sea will eventually swallow back that part of the reclaimed land.

A total review of the Gambling City project and the speedy prosecution of corrupt regulators must be given priority.

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PAYOFFS: An exclusive story of Reuters has it that United States authorities are investigating Rodolfo Soriano, a former Pagcor consultant and a close associate of then Pagcor chairman Efraim Genuino, for alleged payoffs in connection with the projected Gambling City.

Affiliates of Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada’s Universal Entertainment Corp. allegedly paid $5 million to Soriano when the company of Okada was lobbying to win concessions for a $2-billion casino in the Pagcor project.

Curiously, Universal had announced that it won those concessions in April 2010, two months before former President Gloria Arroyo left office.

Citing court papers and documents prepared by Universal’s own staff, Reuters reported that a Universal subsidiary paid Soriano in May 2010 via a shell company in Hong Kong. The money was allegedly part of $40 million in transfers made by Universal’s US affiliate Aruze USA.

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LICENSE SECURED?: The remaining $35 million was paid in January-May 2010 to a firm called Subic Leisure and Management, according to records cited by Reuters.

Subic Leisure was registered in the British Virgin Islands in September 2008, after Universal acquired reclaimed land on Manila Bay and announced plans to build Asia’s largest aquarium, a Ferris wheel and a 2,050-room hotel and casino.

Reuters reported that Universal had announced winning a provisional license to operate a casino in the Philippines when it paid about $300 million for land as part of the bayside project.

Universal, more than 66-percent of which is controlled by Okada and his son through Okada Holdings LLC, has sued three former employees. They said their personnel were not authorized to channel the $5 million through Hong Kong-registered Future Fortune Ltd.

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TIFF WITH WYNN: The alleged Universal payments are the latest twist in a business falling out between Okada, who made his fortune making and marketing pachinko (a mix of slot and pinball machines), and Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn.

The 70-year-old Okada, ranked by Forbes 18th among Japan’s wealthiest, was Wynn’s partner and largest investor until Wynn charged this year that Okada had broken compliance rules by paying some $110,000 in entertainment and other expenses for gaming regulators from the Philippines and South Korea.

Filipino officials also entertained by Okada on another occasion allegedly included current Pagcor Chairman Cristino Naguiat, who was promptly cleared by President Noynoy Aquino when the report came out.

It has been pointed out in some quarters, however, that the Pagcor boss should have been more circumspect as he is a regulator and not a casino high-roller normally given VIP freebies.

The US investigation could complicate Universal’s bid to complete the casino by the bay that it began building in January. It has been promoting it as a destination resort for China’s new rich.

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MIRIAM RESO: As we were writing this piece, we received a copy of a resolution filed by Sen. Miriam Santiago seeking an inquiry into the Reuters report of bribery of Pagcor officials.

The senator cited RA 3019 penalizing graft and corruption, as well as the Revised Penal Code on bribery. If proved to be true, the reported payments to past Pagcor officials will bolster pending plunder cases against them.

Soriano, Genuino and 16 other former Pagcor officials are facing plunder charges for alleged malversation of public funds and goods amounting to more than P100 million. Part of that was allegedly used for election spending.

In the charges, the Department of Justice cited cash advances amounting to P44 million that Pagcor allegedly donated to the Batas Iwas Droga Foundation where Genuino was a board member.

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BAGMAN?: Santiago noted that Manuel Camacho, a Manila lawyer who used to represent Universal in the Philippines, had described Soriano as “an agent for Okada on the Manila casino project even as he worked for Pagcor as a consultant.”

In other reports, Soriano had been described as a “bagman” of Genuino. As consultant, he reportedly made frequent visits to Universal offices in Tokyo and hosted Okada in his visits to Manila.

The senator cited an investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh disclosing that Soriano and Genuino had been guests at Wynn resorts with their expenses paid for by Universal when Okada was a major Wynn shareholder and Genuino was Pagcor chairman.

Genuino resigned as Pagcor chairman in June 2010, and Soriano quit as consultant a day later.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 20, 2012)

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