Macau junket operator accused of laundering HK$1.8 billion

HONG KONG, June 26 (Reuters) - A storied Macau junket operator, who has been the focus of a lengthy police investigation, has been accused of laundering HK$1.8 billion ($232 million) through bank accounts in Hong Kong, according to court documents released this week.

Cheung Chi-tai, a former major shareholder of one of Macau’s biggest junket operators the Neptune Group, is facing three separate charges of money laundering.

In November last year, the Hong Kong police launched a money-laundering investigation related to Cheung and had frozen his assets.

Macau’s junket operators and high roller VIP industry has come under increased scrutiny from authorities due to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s campaign to crack down on corruption and illicit transactions.

Gambling revenue in Macau has plummeted for the past year. The junket business, which relies on middle men to bring in gamblers from mainland China, extending them credit and collecting debts from them, has taken an extra beating.

Cheung, who lives in one of Hong Kong’s most affluent neighbourhoods, has been charged with dealing with property known or believed to represent proceeds of an indictable offence, according to a charge sheet seen by Reuters.

Bank of China and Chong Hing Bank are shown as the banks involved in the transactions. Both banks could not be immediately reached for comment.

A Neptune spokesman said Cheung was not a shareholder and had no link to the company. The 54-year old could not be immediately reached for comment.

Cheung was also named in another money laundering trial of former Birmingham City owner Carson Yeung last year. Cheung was not present at that trial.

The trial of the flamboyant Hong Kong businessman Yeung cast a rare spotlight on some of the murky channels and methods used by underground banks and money launderers in moving illicit capital between China, Hong Kong and the gambling hub of Macau.

Cheung was identified in a 1992 U.S. Senate committee investigation as a top lieutenant of the Wo Hop To triad group.

A Reuters’ 2010 special report also found links between Cheung and organised criminal gangs, or triads, and a casino run by gambling goliath Las Vegas Sands in Macau.

While Cheung hasn’t been convicted of any triad-related crimes, his organised crime affiliation was corroborated by U.S. authorities and former and current police officials.

Cheung’s case has been adjourned to Sept. 24. He was released on bail for HK$200,000. ($1 = 7.7515 Hong Kong dollars) (Reporting by Farah Master, James Pomfret and Shan Kao; Editing by Ryan Woo)