Las Vegas’ image might suffer from money laundering/drug trafficking case

Around the casino industry they say all publicity is good publicity, but I’m not so sure the titans of Gaming Inc. will embrace that adage in the new year.

In fact, the image of Las Vegas figures to take a beating that could reverberate throughout the nation. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached after beginning to review some of the mountain of documents related to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s money laundering and drug trafficking case against Strip high roller Zhenli Ye Gon and former casino hostess Michele Wong. I can only guess that some casinos will be pegging the “Plausible Deniability” meter in the days and weeks to come.

If you’ve read much about the story, you probably remember that when Mexican and U.S. drug enforcement authorities in 2007 raided Ye Gon’s Mexico City home they discovered a record $207 million, mostly in $100 bills.

As the owner of Unimed Pharmchem Mexico, the Chinese-born Mexican citizen in 2005 and 2006 imported from Asia and Europe nearly 100 metric tons of precursor chemicals used to make methamphetamine. But Ye Gon has denied playing an integral role in cartel drug trafficking. He has said he is a victim of a bizarre blackmail plot linked to Mexico’s ruling party. That story line hasn’t prevented him from being indicted on federal drug charges. Currently in federal custody, he’s also wanted in Mexico in connection with the investigation.

According to the affidavit of DEA Special Agent Adam Lambert, the chemicals Ye Gon imported would convert into 36.5 kilograms of pure methamphetamine, which once cut and sold would generate more than $724 million dollars.

Profits of that scale make finding $207 million seem fathomable.

Ye Gon met and befriended Wong in 2004 when she was a casino host at The Mirage. The pair’s romance produced one child, and Ye Gon lavished cars and gifts on her. He also bought her a Las Vegas home.

Meanwhile, Ye Gon was busy gambling more than $125 million in Las Vegas casinos. According to a published report, he gambled $150,000 per hand of baccarat.

While The Mirage and MGM are mentioned in passing in the documents I’ve read, The Venetian is recognized by Lambert as the site of substantial activity by Ye Gon. In keeping with the Strip tradition of lavishing perks on favorite high rollers, The Venetian gave Ye Gon a Rolls-Royce and allowed him access to its private jets.

This excerpt comes from Lambert’s affidavit in support of the complaint and arrest of Wong: “In addition to storing cash at Ye Gon’s residence in Mexico City, the group wanted Ye Gon to launder money. Ye Gon told Wong that he knew the money in his house was ‘dirty money’ and the proceeds of narcotics trafficking. Ye Gon stated to Wong that he continually received threats against himself and his family, so he believed that he had to launder the money. Ye Gon told Wong that the group instructed him to launder the money in Las Vegas, NV, and that he should gamble with the money and purchase high value items in Las Vegas. Wong said that Ye Gon would frequently receive push-to-talk telephone calls on his Nextel cellular telephone from the traffickers with instructions on how to launder the funds. Ye Gon told Wong that the traffickers instructed him to use his bank accounts to send the money to Las Vegas where he could launder it, and the money in Ye Gon’s accounts at the Venetian was drug money. Wong claims that she does not know how the money was deposited into Ye Gon’s accounts in Mexico.”

It was, authorities contend, an enormous pile of drug money linked to Mexican cartels that feed some 80 percent of the U.S. meth addiction. What isn’t made clear in the documents is what The Venetian might have reasonably known about Ye Gon. Perhaps it’s something Gaming Control Board investigators can help clarify.

Meanwhile, the strange case of Ye Gon certainly puts a twist on the Venetian Foundation’s participation in the Crystal Darkness anti-methamphetamine campaign headed by ousted Nevada first lady Dawn Gibbons. Being named in a DEA affidavit would surely seem to complicate The Venetian’s anti-drug publicity push.

If we really want to have an effect on Mexico’s meth cartels, it’s time Las Vegas casinos find a way to identify drug cartel representatives and just say “no.”

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.

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