Panel examining Universal Entertainment payments disbands

TOKYO Wed May 14, 2014 12:45pm EDT

TOKYO May 14 (Reuters) - A panel of outside experts convened by Japan's Universal Entertainment Corp to investigate $40 million in payments related to its Philippine casino project said it was disbanding after the company failed to disclose their findings to the public.

The four-person panel, headed by a former high-ranking police official, said in a brief statement distributed to reporters in Tokyo that it would disband indefinitely because Universal had not made public an interim report submitted to the company in March. It did not elaborate.

Universal, which makes Japanese pachi-slot gambling machines, did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Nevada gaming regulator and the Philippine government have been probing whether the $40 million in payments made by affiliates of Universal in 2010 were bribes to advance a $2 billion casino it is building on Manila Bay.

Universal has denied such allegations and has said it conducted its business lawfully in the Philippines.

The Japanese company, controlled by billionaire Kazuo Okada, initially convened the panel of experts in January of last year to investigate the payments.

The company said the probe would be handled by people with no conflicts of interest with the company, in line with guidelines set by Japan's Federation of Bar Associations. Those guidelines state that, in principle, the findings of such investigations should be disclosed to stakeholders without delay.

The panel completed a report last June which concluded there was no evidence of bribery but cited governance problems at Universal and noted that a senior executive still with the company had altered a document used to justify the payments after the fact in 2012.

In August, Universal announced the panel would add a fourth member and further investigate the responsibility of those involved in the payments.

The company has not made any disclosure in relation to the panel's investigation since that time.

The panel is chaired by Yoshiyuki Kaneshige, a former Japanese police official who now runs a management consultancy. The other three members are lawyers: Teruki Uchida, a former deputy president of the Osaka Securities Exchange, Takujiro Hamada, an ex finance ministry official, and Atsushi Iritani.

None of the four men were available for immediate comment.

The $40 million being investigated was paid to two companies controlled by Rodolfo Soriano, a consultant with close ties to the then head of the Philippine casino regulator, records reviewed by Reuters show.

Universal sued three former employees in November 2012, alleging they transmitted $10 million of the payments without proper authorisation. All three men, including one who was sued for another $5 million related to the Philippine project, are contesting those claims in court, saying they were carrying out orders from Okada.

The company has yet to determine how the bulk of the payments was used.

Universal has filed a defamation lawsuit against Reuters in Tokyo for its reporting on the payments. A Reuters spokesman said the company stands by its reporting on the matter.

(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Elaine Hardcastle)