MANILA, Philippines – The already controversial saga of the reportedly illegal payments the group of Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada to Filipino officials just got more murky.
On Friday, November 30, Reuters, in the latest of its investigation series, reported that the amount traced as questionable payments to Rodolfo Soriano, a former consultant of the Philippines casino regulator, reached “at least US$30 million,” far more than the $5 million earlier announced.
Citing company records and various interviews, Reuters said a total of $40 million was sent by Universal to firms that Soriano controlled, British Virgin Islands-registered Subic Leisure and Management. From the Las Vegas-based unit of Okada-led Universal Entertainment, Reuters traced the money to have been coursed via Hong Kong firm Future Fortune.
Of the total amount, $10 million was retuned to the Japanese gaming machines maker, leaving Soriano with a net of $30 million.
Describing Soriano as a “fixer,” Reuters said these payments were described in a meeting of Okada-led Universal Entertainment as a “completion bonus” for “his help in clearing remaining hurdles” for the casino company’s Manila venture.
The additional incentives, including an exemption from corporate tax and foreign ownership restrictions, were on top of the franchise already granted by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) to the Okada group and 3 more groups for Manila’s upcoming casino complex meant to put the Philippines in the global gambling map.
“Soriano, who has close ties to key members of the administration of former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, received the payments as Universal was lobbying for tax and other government concessions to boost the profitability of a $2 billion casino it was developing on Manila Bay,” Reuters said.
The payments were reportedly made months before Arroyo and her husband, Jose Miguel, stepped down from office in July 2010. The former president exempted Universal Entertainment from paying a corporate tax in March 2010, leaving the casino liable only for a 23.5% gaming tax.
“As a result of the tax concessions and low labor costs in the Philippines, Okada told investors and analysts last year that the Manila casino would be more profitable than gaming in Macau or Las Vegas, markets where Wynn has built his resorts,” the report noted, referring to Wynn Resorts where Okada used to be the single biggest shareholder.
Soriano and the former First Gentleman previously travelled to Las Vegas in 2009, according to a previous report prepared by a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) chief and commissioned by Okada’s friends-turned-rivals in Wynn Resorts. Okada and Wynn Resorts are currently in bitter legal battles, triggered by investigations of Okada’s dealings in the Philippines.
“Soriano was an early partner in Okada’s Philippine project, and Universal documents describe him as the “personal secretary” to Efraim Genuino, former head of PAGCOR,” it added.
The Nevada gaming regulator is investigating these allegations.
Current PAGCOR officials under the Aquino administration said they would revoke Okada group’s franchise if the charges are proven true. The Department of Justice is also investigating the charges.
An earlier report on the travels and gifts of the Okada firms to the current PAGCOR officials were shrugged off by the Aquino government as mere “industry practice.”
In a hearing before the House Committee on Games and Amusement on November , Masahiro Terada, president of Okada-led Tiger Resorts, confirmed that certain employees of Universal Entertainment transferred sums of $5 million and $10 million to two companies connected with Soriano.
But Tiger Resorts representatives said the payments were made without the consent of management and were not connected with PAGCOR’s Entertainment City project. – Rappler.com