TOKYO, June 4 (Reuters) - A former employee of Universal Entertainment Corp filed a criminal complaint against Kazuo Okada, the Japanese firm’s billionaire founder, alleging he ordered the payment of bribes to advance a still-unfinished casino project in the Philippines.
Takafumi Nakano submitted his complaint to Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office in late May, a copy reviewed by Reuters showed. It was not clear if the prosecutors’ office, which declined to comment, would investigate his claims. Nakano has made similar claims in an ongoing civil defamation case against his former employer.
The criminal complaint marks the latest salvo in a long-running legal battle between Okada and three former employees over $40 million in payments made in 2010 that have been the subject of separate investigations by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Nevada gaming regulator and the Philippine government.
If U.S. and Philippine authorities decide there is evidence of wrongdoing, Okada and his companies could face prosecution for violation of anti-bribery laws in those countries. The Nevada regulator could impose sanctions impacting various licenses in the state, including to manufacture and distribute slot machines.
Okada and Universal Entertainment have filed lawsuits against the three former staff, accusing them of transmitting a portion of the money without proper authorization. In court filings all three men have said they were acting on Okada’s orders.
In the complaint, Nakano said Okada ordered that the bulk of the money be paid to Rodolfo Soriano, a consultant with close ties to Efraim Genuino, then head of the Philippine gaming regulator, with the aim of securing tax and foreign ownership concessions for the $2 billion casino Universal is building on Manila Bay.
Universal did not respond to a request for comment. Soriano and Genuino, who have not been charged with any wrongdoing, could not be reached for comment.
“The only conclusion is that $30 million was paid as bribes to Genuino or to other public officials” who could influence the relaxing of foreign ownership regulations and PEZA recognition, Nakano wrote in his complaint, referring to a tax-light economic zone in Manila.
The lifting of restrictions on foreign ownership of casinos and the approval to operate in PEZA were granted in 2010 around the time the payments were made to two companies controlled by Soriano. Universal has denied any connection and says it has conducted its business in the Philippines lawfully.
The complaint urges that Japanese prosecutors investigate and charge Okada under the country’s law against bribing foreign officials.
That law, which is the equivalent of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States, has rarely been enforced in Japan, prompting the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to criticize the world’s third-largest economy for not doing enough to stamp out bribery.
Of the $40 million, Universal has said $10 million was improperly circulated through overseas affiliates and back to the company to act as repayment of a non-performing loan. It has yet to determine how the remaining $30 million was used.
On Friday, Universal disclosed that it would replace its sole independent director, Hiroyuki Sawada, who had overseen a third-party investigation by outside experts into the $40 million in payments, as part of an annual reshuffling of its board. Universal did not give a specific reason for Sawada’s departure. Sawada could not be reached for comment.
In initial findings made public last year the outside experts concluded there was no evidence of bribery but said Universal’s governance practices had been flawed.
The expert panel investigated further and completed another report in March but the company has declined to make it public. In a statement last week, the panel said Universal had a responsibility to its stakeholders to make public that investigative report.
In his complaint, Nakano also recommended charges against Okada and three of his lawyers for criminal defamation. The lawyers named in the complaint include Yuki Arai, the co-head of Book Field Capital, a Tokyo-based asset manager and legal office, and Universal’s main lawyer on the Philippine matter.
Arai and the other two lawyers, Junichi Okuhisa and Yasuharu Otawa, did not respond to a request for comment.
Reuters reported last month that Arai had offered payment to Nakano in July to retract his claims that Universal had paid bribes and to stop providing information to investigative agencies. Responding to that report, Universal said Reuters distorted the facts of the settlement offer, which it claimed was the idea of Tamaki Katsube, Nakano’s lawyer. It said Katsube had asked for millions of dollars for his client to settle their legal dispute. Katsube said he never asked for such a payment and noted that the settlement offer, which he rejected, came from Arai.
Universal has sued Reuters in Tokyo for defamation in relation to its reporting on the $40 million in payments. A Reuters spokesman said the company stands by its reporting. (Editing by Ian Geoghegan)