Macau graft trial casts spotlight on gambling boom

Macau (Reuters) – Macau’s biggest corruption trial opened on Monday with the court hearing charges that a former top official had taken millions of dollars in kickbacks to speed up construction of the gaming haven’s multi-billion-dollar casinos.

Former secretary for transport and public works Ao Man-long faces 76 counts of corruption, including accepting bribes, laundering money and abuse of power, shining a spotlight on the crime feeding off Macau’s boom but also fanning hopes for stronger supervision.

Ao, driven to court in a motorcade of police vehicles with tinted windows, has not entered a plea in a trial expected to involve more than 100 witnesses and last over a month.

Once considered a political ally of Macau leader Edmund Ho, Ao is the most senior official to go on trial since the former Portuguese-run enclave returned to Chinese rule in 1999.

Anti-graft officers and prosecutors said they had evidence he had amassed a fortune worth about USD 100 million — over 57 times his income over seven years as a top policy secretary — after raids on his home and offices unearthed a web of offshore firms and bank accounts through which he funnelled funds.

Officers also found wads of USD 100 bills, euros, Hong Kong currency, luxury watches, vintage wine and cigars, prosecutors said.

Ao’s arrest sent shockwaves through Macau’s political establishment, given his role in approving land sales to property developers vying for a lucrative slice of real estate.

„The community is shocked,“ said Larry So, an associate professor at the Macau Polytechnic Institute and a political commentator. „Everybody has been talking and thinking, there must be a lot of problems going on in the government. For example, how come the land has been given out without proper procedures?“

Complex Web

The president of Macau’s Court of Final Appeal, Sam Hou Fai, said Ao and associates had set up shell companies from the British Virgin Islands to London and bank accounts in Hong Kong. Cases involving Macau government officials charged with crimes related to their work are heard by the highest court.

Ao, clad in a dark suit, sat motionless as the charges were read to a subdued courtroom on Monday, before saying the many accusations against him were confusing.

„I feel they are not very clear allegations,“ Ao said calmly. „There’s been lots of repetition, twisting and turning.“

Ao stands accused of hastening the approval process for local developers and contractors on numerous projects, including one involving the USD 2.4 billion Venetian Macau, and helped developers snag contracts in open tenders in return for kickbacks.

The Venetian Macau said on Monday it had no comment for now.

Among other things, prosecutors accused Ao of taking substantial bribes also on projects to build part of Macau’s East Asian Games stadium, which had become known for cost over-runs during its construction.

In past years, Macau has flung its doors open to global gaming giants from Wynn Resorts to the Las Vegas Sands, which operates the Venetian Macau, turning the territory into the world’s largest gaming hub.

Some USD 24 billion has been earmarked for infrastructure and building the Cotai strip — reclaimed land where casinos, hotels, malls and convention halls are springing up.

But the once sleepy enclave’s image, the only place in China where gambling is legal, has been tainted by unrest and charges of graft. The United States identified local lender Banco Delta Asia as laundering money for North Korea.

Ao’s trial also comes at a time of rising social tensions despite Macau’s soaring economy, with workers decrying a growing wealth gap, flawed governance and rising corruption.

Analysts say Ao’s case also reflects Beijing’s growing desire to crack down on Macau’s problems, with anti-graft officials from Beijing and Hong Kong playing a key role in gathering evidence to bring the former official to trial.