Firm linked to Imperial Pacific arranged Saipan lawmakers’ trips

The company that paid for controversial fact-finding visits to Hong Kong and Macau by lawmakers from the U.S. territory of Saipan has connections to the operator of the island’s casino, according to evidence accepted by a Hong Kong court this month.

In a High Court judgment issued March 16 in a suit over casino debts, Judge Bebe Pui Ying Chu found “credible” the overall testimony of a Chinese gambler who said that Ji Xiaobo and Cai Lingli were representatives of a firm called Esteem Capital Success Ltd. in the fall of 2013. Ji’s mother owns a controlling stake in casino operator Imperial Pacific International Holdings Ltd., while Cai is its executive director. Ji was the Saipan casino’s project manager as of November, the company said then.

This is the first time a link has been drawn between Esteem Capital and Imperial Pacific, which in a November interview said it never had any connections to the firm. The trips taken by Saipan legislators, including then-senator Ralph Torres, to Hong Kong and Macau were arranged by Esteem, according to Torres, who is now the territory’s governor. Esteem was not among bidders for Saipan’s first-ever casino license. Soon after the trips that were taken from late 2013, Imperial Pacific won the bidding, gaining exclusive rights to operate a casino in the Pacific territory.

The trips raised questions at the time, with critics of the license process alleging that the gaming bill passed by the legislature benefited the investor group that had brought the legislators to Hong Kong and Macau, the Saipan Tribune reported in 2014.

Imperial Pacific declined to comment on the relationship between Imperial Pacific and Esteem Capital or the language in the court’s judgment. Esteem Capital is not listed in company registries in Hong Kong or China.

Torres was “offered no reason to establish a connection between Esteem Capital and Imperial Pacific” when he traveled to Hong Kong and Macau to observe the operation of integrated casino resorts, he said in an email through a representative. Torres was told that Esteem was in the business of promoting such resorts in Asia, he said. The governor was unaware of the Hong Kong judgment and said he couldn’t comment on it.

The court decision included testimony that described Ji’s office, listed on a business card bearing his name and that of Esteem Capital, as the same 70th-floor suite in Hong Kong’s International Finance Center skyscraper that since last year has housed Imperial Pacific’s corporate headquarters.

In a Hong Kong exchange filing in 2011, the same suite was listed as the address for a subsidiary of Simsen International that was identified in the court decision. Ji held a 9 percent stake in Simsen in 2014. The suite was occupied by the Simsen unit up until Imperial Pacific took it over, according to the building’s reception.

In the Hong Kong case, a Simsen subsidiary sued Chinese gambler Jiang Quanlong for allegedly not paying back more than HKD212 million (USD27 million) in loans.

Ji’s mother, mainland Chinese entrepreneur Cui Lijie, owns about 64 percent of Hong Kong-listed Imperial Pacific, according to a Hong Kong exchange filing in October. Cai, Imperial Pacific’s executive director, was described in the court testimony as Ji’s secretary at Esteem.

Imperial Pacific’s casino on remote Saipan, dubbed Best Sunshine Live, has attracted attention throughout the gambling industry for posting per-table VIP revenues far greater than those of the largest facilities in Macau, Asia’s gambling capital. The company has said that success is due in part to wealthy Chinese bettors choosing to take the roughly five-hour flight to the Pacific island rather than going to Macau, sometimes betting millions of dollars at a time.

A competing bidder for Saipan’s sole gambling license alleged in an unsuccessful 2014 lawsuit that local lawmakers had illegally received “significant benefits” from casino investors, and that regulators had refused to investigate whether Imperial Pacific was linked to them. A spokeswoman for Torres said in November there is no evidence to support allegations of improper benefits to legislators.

The visits to Hong Kong and Macau occurred a few months before Saipan legislators in March 2014 reversed years of opposition to a casino on the island, passing a law to open bidding for the license.

Imperial Pacific’s then-Chief Executive Officer Mark Brown said in an interview in November that Imperial Pacific has never been connected to Esteem or had anything to do the legislators’ visits to Hong Kong.

“We met them, but we had nothing to do with the trip or taking them around,” Brown, now the company’s chairman, said in November, referring to meetings between the legislators and Imperial Pacific. Brown said he didn’t know who arranged the meetings that took place before he joined Imperial Pacific in November 2014.

“Whoever they were, they dropped out,” he said, referring to Esteem not joining the list of bidders for the Saipan casino license.

Brown, a former executive in President Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casino empire, has led Imperial Pacific’s plan to replace what it describes as a temporary facility with a much larger luxury hotel and casino complex slated to open next month. After downgrades from Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service in January, the company sold $150 million in bonds this year to Inventive Star Ltd., which is controlled by Cui.

Imperial Pacific has faced multiple court challenges since the Saipan facility opened, including a December suit from a former executive who alleged violations of money-laundering rules at the facility. The company says it complies with all relevant regulations. Imperial Pacific told the court March 1 that it will file an amended answer to the plaintiff’s claim shortly. Daniela Wei, Matthew Campbell, Bloomberg

Categories Headlines Macau