Nevada's top gaming regulator defended his agency's 3-year-old approval of MGM Mirage's business partner in Macau despite Wednesday's finding by his New Jersey counterparts that Hong Kong businesswoman Pansy Ho was unsuitable and under the influence of her Asian casino magnate father, who has extensive ties to Chinese organized crime triads.
Gaming Control Board Chairman Dennis Neilander said Wednesday there were "sufficient" protections in the joint venture documents governing MGM Mirage's and Pansy Ho's 50-50 ownership of the MGM Grand Macau to keep a third party from influencing the operation.
New Jersey's suspicions led MGM Mirage to agree last week to sell its half of Atlantic City's top casino, rather than abandon the lucrative Chinese market.
Under Nevada's Foreign Gaming Act, regulators need to determine if a business relationship would be detrimental or damage the reputation of the state. The Gaming Control Board and Nevada Gaming Commission spent several days in March 2007 vetting the relationship between Pansy Ho, her father Stanley Ho and MGM Mirage.
"We made the decision back in 2007 and, to my knowledge, the joint venture has not brought any discredit to the state," Neilander said.
New Jersey casino regulators said Wednesday they had evidence Stanley Ho, an 88-year-old Hong Kong billionaire, is tied to organized crime.
Considered the father of modern gambling in China, Stanley Ho lets criminal gangs "operate and thrive" inside his casinos, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement said in a report issued to the state's governing Casino Control Commission last May and made public Wednesday.
The division found that Pansy Ho is dependent on him and his money and remains under his influence.
Because of the New Jersey report, state casino regulators gave their approval for the company to place its 50 percent ownership in the Borgata and 40 undeveloped acres near the resort into a trust to be sold in the next 30 months.
Neilander said New Jersey regulators were working with the same information uncovered by Nevada gaming agents in their investigation of Pansy Ho.
The difference, however, is the different standards for licensing and suitability in Nevada and New Jersey. Atlantic City's gaming regulators found Stanley Ho unsuitable, and as such, said Pansy Ho was unsuitable as well.
According to the report, 90 percent of Pansy Ho's financial contribution to the joint venture came through her father.
Neilander said Nevada never had to make a ruling on the suitability of Stanley Ho because of the safeguards in the joint venture.
"It was the same set of facts, just different law," Neilander said. "The allegations (of Stanley Ho's ties to organized crime) have been out there for years. Our agents knew about them. But they have never been substantiated. We worked with the DGE throughout the investigation. I respect their decision."
MGM Mirage admitted no wrongdoing and said it has a "spotless record" operating the MGM Grand Macau with Pansy Ho, who had zero casino experience prior to the joint venture. She continues to hold leadership positions in her father's companies, the report said.
MGM Mirage forcefully defended Pansy Ho in a statement.
"The DGE's report acknowledges there is no evidence that Pansy Ho has engaged in any wrongdoing or been accused of any illegal activity," MGM Mirage Chairman and CEO Jim Murren said. "Gaming regulators in the other jurisdictions where we operate casinos are well aware of this matter, had access to the same information as the New Jersey gaming regulators, and have all either determined that the company's relationship with Pansy Ho is appropriate or that further action was not necessary."
Murren said the company structured its business relationship with Pansy Ho to comply with gaming laws and to protect against any improper influence.
Messages left by the Associated Press for Pansy Ho at Shun Tak Holdings, a Hong Kong-based conglomerate where she is a managing director, were not returned.
Stanley Ho, who was recently discharged from a Hong Kong hospital where he had been treated since August for unspecified surgery, has previously dismissed allegations of organized crime ties.
According to the report, former MGM Mirage Chairman Terry Lanni told regulators the company realized it would never get licensed in New Jersey if it maintained Stanley Ho as a business partner.
"You would have to be living under a rock not to know about Stanley Ho and what the perception of Stanley Ho is," Lanni is quoted as saying. "I realize he's never been indicted, he's never been convicted, but perception is reality, and maybe there is reality there also beyond the failure to have the indictments or convictions."
The report cites numerous sources including a U.S. Senate committee, several governmental and regulatory agencies, a private investigative firm hired by MGM Mirage in 2001, and an unidentified U.S. law enforcement official asserting Stanley Ho has ties to Chinese organized crime.
The MGM Mirage private investigator asserted "it is nearly impossible to be in the casino business in Macau at present without having associations with triad groups, or what is known as organized crime," according to the report.
"The character and reputation of Stanley Ho, the father of MGM's joint venture partner, precludes any finding other than that he is unsuitable," the gaming enforcement division wrote. "MGM senior executives conceded his unsuitability during this investigation. Furthermore, numerous governmental and regulatory agencies have referenced Stanley Ho's associations with criminal enterprises, including permitting organized crime to operate and thrive within his casinos."
The report asserted that MGM Mirage simply substituted Pansy Ho for Stanley Ho, once it realized it wouldn't get licensed in New Jersey if it were affiliated with Stanley Ho, the report asserted.
The casino commission approved former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice James Zazzali, who also has served as the state's attorney general, to serve as trustee for MGM Mirage's interest in the Borgata.
The casino will continue to operate as usual. Co-owner Boyd Gaming Corp. has the right of first refusal to buy MGM Mirage's share but won't say whether it plans to do so.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Howard Stutz at email@example.com or 702-477-3871.