As elections near, gambling lords take spotlight

Bishops caution against criminal element's influence
As elections near, gambling lords take spotlight

Philippine activists and church officials are concerned about the growing influence casino owners have on national politics. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Philippine state gambling regulators told a congressional probe this week that a loss of US$10 million on one binge was regular in local casinos that handled some of the US$81 million stolen from Bangladesh's central bank.

As gambling lords and casino operators, and their bankers and remittance agents, blithely talked of personal turnovers of millions of dollars, Filipinos took to social media to express bewilderment and outrage.

Kim Wong, one of the country's most powerful junket agents and among those charged with the money laundering of cyberheist proceeds, told a senator that it would be "an insult" to even inquire where his clients’ money comes from.

"Someone who gambles amounts as huge as this should be considered suspicious," said Joaquin Astono on Twitter.

Poverty stalks more than a quarter of the country's 100 million population; average monthly income is less than US$200.

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"I can't even make half a million pesos in a year of hard work and very little sleep, and I hear people dismiss half a billion pesos of gambling losses," said Lorena Lopez, a call center agent.

The country's Catholic bishops issued a statement decrying casinos "as a symbol of the reckless abandon with which many live their lives."

Wong parks at least a US$150-million revolving fund for high-roller clients in just one casino. In that same casino, operated by the state regulation agency, he gets 74.5 percent of earnings. The state corporation gets only 26.5 percent.

In a privately owned casino, where Wong said he also had more than a $100 million stashed, he gets 47.5 percent of earnings. He describes his role in the private casino as a "partner in the casino bank."

Wong, a Hong Kong national and longtime Philippine resident, got most profits from the state-operated casino. Officials there said he isn’t even a formal junket operator but an "agent." 

The word, however, carries even bigger clout than being a casino banker. Wong receives a commission from operators he is believed to also control. His earnings are derived from the amounts of bets, win or lose.

One of those operators, Gao Shuhua from Beijing, is one of two men Wong claimed were behind the money-laundering scheme. The other, Ding Zhize from Macau, the Chinese gambling protectorate, was a new entry into the junket industry. A third Chinese junket boss, Weikang Xu, is also involved.

Wong introduced Gao to the Rizal Commercial Banking Operations bank manager who opened five accounts worth a minimum US$500 in 2015, letting these sleep until the huge cyberheist flow last February.


Regulation woes

Lorenzo Tan, president and chief executive officer of the bank during the cyberheist, surprised legislators with the very high alert threshold of his bank — four times that of some banks' US$5 million alarm level. He also admitted that bank executives ignored a hold request by the Bangladesh central bank.

Senators said officials of the state gambling regulation agency, Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. or Pagcor, face a slew of graft cases. They also vowed to correct a basic conflict of interest in Pagcor’s mandate.

"The quality of your regulation suffers when you are also a casino operator," said Sen. Ralph Recto.

Yet, strangely, no one thought to ask Wong, whose operations received more than US$20 million from the heist money, where he got the capital to fund his casino junket empire.

Fifteen years ago, Wong faced senators probing the country’s narcotics trade problem. But the hearings ended with Wong unscathed, while law enforcers found themselves besieged by his political friends.


Big donor

Wong arrived in the Philippines as a child of 10, dropped out of school in his teens, worked at a tobacco company and, after years of anonymity, emerged as a campaign donor of politicians from various camps and benefactor of the Philippine National Police.

Wong initially cropped up as a friend of ousted president, Joseph Estrada, who is up for re-election as mayor of Manila.

But Wong also became a bigwig under former president Gloria Arroyo’s administration and also has ties with the ruling Liberal Party’s candidate in the Manila mayoral race and one of its leading bets for the Senate.

Wong is a foreigner and banned from contributing to political campaigns and so it is his wife’s name that appears on official donors’ lists. 

What he gives unofficially is not known. 

Even before the formal campaign season started, presidential contenders spent hundreds of millions to more than a billion pesos for obvious political ads. The Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that expenses before the official campaign period do not count as political donations. That leaves a yawning gap in efforts to keep politics free of dirty money.

The Liberal Party presidential candidate, Mar Roxas, also stunned the country last week with his effusive praise for a governor and wife of one of the country’s biggest illegal gambling lords.

Like Wong, the Pineda family, too, has nimbly tumbled from one level of wealth to greater heights with every change in the national administration. The family patriarch reportedly controls the billion peso illegal numbers game industry in the central part of the mainland.  

The Pinedas delivered cash stuffed in huge native baskets to Estrada’s residence, according to impeachment trial testimonies. But they were even closer to Arroyo, who took over after Estrada’s ouster.

The Pinedas again hogged media headlines when news reports of fraud said they underwrote many of the operations, especially in Mindanao, where Arroyo’s fantastic shut out of the opposition allowed her to defeat an action film superstar — who is the father of Sen. Grace Poe, the current leading presidential contender.

Wong’s favorite remittance agency, meanwhile, is also regularly used by firms of Vice-President Jejomar Binay and also figured in money-laundering probes of alleged ghost accounts in a series of corruption cases.


Moral issue

A day after Easter, the country's Catholic bishops expressed alarm over the "seeming lukewarmness on the part of government and civil society" at dealing with high-stakes, high-risk gambling.

The bishops said gambling "runs counter to the providence by which every person ought to provide diligently and prudently for himself and for his family."

Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the bishops' conference, urged his fellow prelates to "vigilantly monitor gambling activities, promptly report to authorities the operation of illegal gambling outlets, and constantly educate the faithful on the immorality of gambling." 

Archbishop Villegas admitted that with the recent money-laundering scandal, "we are only now starting to see how wide the reach of this form of criminality and arrant immorality is." 

"No one pulls off a criminal stunt like this alone," the bishop said. 

As the wheel of fortune gives fat cats a monopoly on jackpots, the rest of the country struggles with less than US$3,000 annual per capita income, according to the World Bank.

Wealth disparity in the Philippines is among the most pronounced in Asia, with 16 percent of the population getting 60 percent of the gross domestic product of the local economic income, with 84 percent scrambling for the balance.

Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.

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