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Questions swirl after fraud probe targets high roller who lost $120 million

From the day a decade ago that Omar Siddiqui emerged as a Strip high roller, speed defined his casino persona.

He might have been a mild-mannered vice president of merchandizing at Fry’s Electronics back in San Jose, but in Las Vegas he was a wild man with a seemingly inexhaustible bankroll. Siddiqui liked fast cars, and he played blackjack almost as fast as he drove.

"He was a machine," says one casino industry veteran familiar with his style. "You couldn’t deal fast enough."

Bang, bang, bang. He’d red line the house limit.

With a million-dollar credit line and an insatiable desire, the Pakistani man born Ausaf Umar Siddiqui gradually became a known quantity — at least to the degree casinos are comfortable identifying their customers. Although his Fry’s salary was $225,000 a year, Siddiqui often gambled more than that in a matter of minutes. Like all players from the time the first dice were carved from bone, he won big and lost bigger.

And he kept coming back. In recent years, he incurred debts and lawsuits in Las Vegas and elsewhere. He left some casinos leaning.

He was clever. Between forays to Las Vegas, he ran up heavy debts at California casinos. When he attempted to settle his Nevada markers, he must have realized that under California law gambling debts incurred in that state weren’t enforceable.

In keeping with Las Vegas custom for high rollers, Siddiqui was occasionally given tens of thousands of dollars in free casino play as an inducement to relocate to a competing property. While some casinos chased him, and others put him on a cash-only status, others continued to court his action as if little had changed. As long as they would have him, he kept returning to take another shot at the tables.

All that’s changed now. The human gambling machine slammed into a brick wall shortly before Christmas. The Internal Revenue Service and U.S. attorney’s office filed a criminal complaint in the Northern District of California against Siddiqui outlining its jaw-dropping fraud investigation.

Siddiqui is accused of using a straw company called PC International to extort millions in kickbacks from companies seeking to do business with Fry’s.

The fact so many vendors kept quiet for so long after being bled for at least $65.6 million in alleged kickbacks from 2005 to 2008 is in itself intriguing.

Now that the machine has broken down, questions about Siddiqui’s alleged scheme swirl:

How is it that he managed to borrow a total of $10.4 million from November 2002 to February 2003 from Fry’s without raising the suspicions of company officials?

Did Las Vegas casino marketing executives know how far Siddiqui was in over his head and still continue to allow him to gamble on credit?

Although the IRS has tracked $65.6 million through Siddiqui’s alleged money laundering and wire fraud setup since 2005, Special Agent Andres Gonzalez noted in his criminal complaint affidavit that $167.8 million passed through PC International.

Some $70.4 million was wire transferred to Venetian subsidiary Venetian Marketing Inc. from 2005 to 2008, according to the complaint. In all, Siddiqui spent approximately $121 million at The Venetian and MGM Grand in three years. He also rang up multimillion-dollar debts at other casinos during that time.

The machine was a busy man.

"Casinos call people like Mr. Siddiqui a ‘whale,’ " his attorney Eric Sidebotham told the San Jose Mercury News this week. "He’s a big carcass you can feed off for a long time. They will pick away at the carcass for every last penny until you are deep in the hole.”

It’s a compelling image, but Siddiqui’s whale status was also accompanied by lavish perquisites. From penthouse suites and free cash to new automobiles and use of private jets, he was given it all in exchange for his action.

One veteran casino source tells the story of Siddiqui also receiving casino stock as a "gift" from a major resort. The story may be legend, and it seems hard to believe, but it’s the kind of tale that’s easy to tell when you’re dealing with a man capable — by hook or crook — of gambling away more than $120 million in less than three years.

Omar Siddiqui, the blackjack machine, is broken for good. But one thing is certain:

He will soon be replaced at the tables by the next machine.

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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