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Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada’s Universal Entertainment Corp. funnelled at least $30-million (U.S.) to an ex-consultant for the Philippines gaming authority who is now at the centre of a bribery investigation, according to sources and company records. (ROMEO RANOCO/REUTERS)
Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada’s Universal Entertainment Corp. funnelled at least $30-million (U.S.) to an ex-consultant for the Philippines gaming authority who is now at the centre of a bribery investigation, according to sources and company records. (ROMEO RANOCO/REUTERS)

Japanese tycoon’s dream casino mired in lawsuits and bribery probe Add to ...

Mr. Okada broke ground on construction of the casino in January 2012, but PAGCOR under its new chairman has threatened to strip Universal of its licence if evidence of bribery is found.

Universal said it conducted its business in the Philippines lawfully. Its lawyer, Yuki Arai, declined to comment further.

Mr. Genuino has been charged with misuse of public funds during his time at PAGCOR for allegations unrelated to the Universal payments to Mr. Soriano. He could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Arroyo has been under hospital arrest for charges related to alleged electoral fraud and misuse of public funds during her presidency. Her spokeswoman, Elena Bautista-Horn, did not return calls seeking comment.

Universal has sued three former employees claiming that $15-million transferred to Mr. Soriano – including the $10-million that was immediately returned – was unauthorized.

In early December, Mr. Okada and Universal announced they had filed a libel action against Reuters in Tokyo for reporting on the payments to Mr. Soriano in November.

Up from hardship

Mr. Okada, one of Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs, had risen through hardship and trusted his gut when it came to the biggest decisions.

His father died when he was in elementary school, a loss he said helped make him self-reliant. He made his first fortune fixing and selling American jukeboxes in the 1960s. He became a billionaire selling pachinko machines, a Japanese form of legal gambling.

By the late 1990s, the pachinko market had peaked and Universal began to look for ways to diversify.

Mr. Okada met casino impresario Steve Wynn in 2000. The two had to rely on a translator – Mr. Okada speaks little English – but both said they began a strong friendship. On a handshake, Mr. Okada became Mr. Wynn’s major investor.

“I got lucky,” Mr. Wynn, 70, told Nevada gaming regulators in 2004. “At first I could hardly believe it, but then $250-million came ‘zwinging’ in.”

Mr. Okada staked Mr. Wynn for a total of $380-million. That jump-started construction of the Wynn Las Vegas resort that opened on the site of the old Desert Inn in 2005, and the even more profitable Wynn Macau in 2006. By 2010, Mr. Okada’s investment had increased in value almost eight times and returned just over $600-million in dividends.

Macau in particular has produced stunning results. By 2011, the Macau market was bringing in almost $34-billion a year, making it more than five times larger than Las Vegas.

When Mr. Genuino visited Tokyo in 2007 to drum up interest in a $15-billion resort and casino complex PAGCOR wanted to develop, Mr. Okada jumped at the chance to invest, people involved said.

A year later, on the cusp of global recession, Universal paid just over $300-million for 30 hectares on Manila Bay. In August 2008, PAGCOR granted a provisional licence to its casino operating company, Tiger Resorts, Leisure and Entertainment.

But Mr. Okada later realized the initial licence fell short of what the company had sought, records show. Universal did not want to have to hire employees, including dealers, through PAGCOR and pay fees to the regulator as a placement service, according to letters sent from Universal to PAGCOR.

Universal also pressed PAGCOR to allow high-rollers coming on trips organized by junket operators to come into the casino without reporting their names to the regulator. Junket operators combine concierge and credit services for rich Chinese and have been central to the growth of gambling in Macau.

By early 2012, Mr. Wynn and Mr. Okada had split and begun a legal fight over Mr. Okada’s continued investment in Mr. Wynn’s company that is playing out in courthouses in the United States, Japan and the Philippines.

A Wynn investigation found Universal had paid $110,000 to entertain gaming regulators from Korea and the Philippines. The Wynn camp alleges that showed Mr. Okada was an unfit partner. Mr. Okada has said Universal entertains officials in line with its internal policy and denies any wrongdoing. The guest list included Mr. Soriano, Mr. Genuino and Mike Arroyo, the husband of then-President Gloria Arroyo.

Mr. Wynn told Okada and other directors in 2011 that he did not think it would be possible to operate in the Philippines, consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt economies in Asia, according to a legal claim filed by Universal in Nevada.

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