MANILA (Reuters) - The FBI sent agents to Manila as part of a probe into millions of dollars of payments made by Universal Entertainment Corp to a government consultant in relation to the firm's casino project on Manila Bay, the Philippine gaming regulator said.
Reuters, citing sources with knowledge of the matter, reported on January 12 that agents from the Las Vegas office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation were in Manila to probe the payments by Universal, controlled by Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada. The payments are also being investigated by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which regulates Universal's operations in the United States.
FBI's Philippine counterpart, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), has been separately investigating the payments as a potential bribery case.
The FBI agents met last week with the chief legal counsel of the state gaming regulator and operator Philippine Amusement & Gaming Corporation (Pagcor), said Cristino Naguiat, chairman and CEO of Pagcor, confirming the Reuters report.
"They just asked about the process," Naguiat told reporters in Manila on Tuesday, referring to the Philippine probe. "They are interested in Okada."
Calls to the Las Vegas FBI office seeking comment went unanswered outside business hours. Officials at the office declined on Saturday to comment on the Reuters story.
Reuters was the first to report in mid-November on the money transfers totaling $40 million to Rodolfo Soriano, an aide of Naguiat's predecessor Efraim Genuino. The payments were made in 2010 when Universal was lobbying for concessions from the government for its casino project.
Reuters has not been able to reach Soriano at his listed residences. Genuino's lawyers did not answer calls to their mobile phones seeking comment.
Universal, majority owned by founder Okada and his son through a family trust, has said that it carried out its business in the Philippines lawfully. It has also announced the filing of a defamation suit against Reuters in Tokyo for its reporting on the matter.
Universal has also sued in Tokyo three former employees, claiming they sent $15 million of the total $40 million in transfers without authorization. Universal has set up a panel of experts without ties to the company to independently investigate the matter.
Universal has done nothing improper and is ready to cooperate with investigators in the Philippines, said company spokesman Nobuyuki Horiuchi on Tuesday.
"We don't see this as an investigation of our conduct but rather as an investigation of whether the Reuters reports have been correct," he said.
The NBI probe on Universal's payments has been extended for a month, Naguiat told reporters. The agency was previously given until December 22 to come up with a final report on the payments.
Officials at the NBI could not be immediately reached for comment.
Pagcor has threatened to strip Universal of its license for the $2 billion casino resort being developed by the company if evidence of bribery was found.
The investigations have delayed construction at the casino resort by "a couple of months," Naguiat said.
Universal said last year that it planned to open the resort, which includes two luxury casino hotels and high-end shopping malls, in 2014.
"They cannot open a casino (if) there's a problem. They can always do the hotel, restaurants and retail. We are not in a position to prevent those things... We can only stop the casino," Naguiat said.
Universal's ongoing talks with Philippine property firm Robinsons Land Corp on a sale of a minority stake in the Osaka-listed company's Philippine unit are also delaying the project, he said.
Okada was in Manila last week and had met with the president of Robinsons Land, Frederick Go, Naguiat said, without specifying where he got the information from.
Go did not respond to Reuters' request for confirmation on the meeting. Go told Reuters last week that discussions and due diligence on the deal with Universal were ongoing.
Robinsons Land said in a company disclosure last month it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Universal to acquire a minority stake in a local unit of Universal which holds a provisional license to own, develop and manage the casino resort.
Further delays, and a possible revocation of Universal's gaming license, could derail the Philippines' gaming revenue projections of $5 billion by 2015, estimated to rise further to $10 billion by 2017, Naguiat said.
Gaming revenues in the Philippines are projected to climb to around $2.5 billion this year from $2 billion in 2012, helped by the opening in March of Solaire, the country's newest casino owned by Bloomberry Resorts Corp.
(Reporting by Rosemarie Francisco and Manny Mogato; Editing by Ryan Woo)