Multinational interest in the ongoing United States prosecution of Asian gambling king Paul Phua continues to surge. The latest developments include a storm of controversy over a once-confidential letter sent by a Malaysian cabinet minister to the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The contents of the letter were quickly excerpted in numerous mainstream Asian news outlets covering the case, including the South China Morning Post and the Malaysian Insider. Exactly how the letter, dated December 16th, was distributed to the outlets remains unclear, or if Phua’s Malaysian legal representation was involved.
Phua, full name Wei Seng Phua (alt: Paul Phua Wei-seng), has separately hired Malaysian attorney Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah to represent him in related matters. Those matters presumably include Phua’s arrest in Macau last May on similar charges to those he faces in the US.
The FBI remains the primary investigating force behind the controversial Nevada case, which involves allegations that Phua and others operated a “boiler room” online gambling business last year from exclusive guest villas at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Phua, his son Wei Kit “Darren” Phua, and six others were charged with processing as much as $300 million in wagers through the boiler-room operation. The vast majority of the wagers were allegedly placed on 2014 FIFA World Cup action.
Paul Phua and his son are the only two of the US case’s original eight defendants who have refused to accept plea deals. Five of the six others pled guilty to charges of operating an illegal gambling enterprise, were fined hefty amounts, and placed on probation that amounted to de facto deportation. Charges against the sixth other defendant were dismissed.
The ongoing case against Paul and Darren Phua received an extra level of intrigue with the publication of the Malaysian cabinet minister’s letter. Zahidi wrote a letter disputing FBI and US Department of Justice claims that Paul Phua is a prominent leader of the 14K Triad, an Asian organized-crime group with alleged extensive ties to illegal sports betting and money laundering.
The 14K Triad claims regarding Paul Phua were featured prominently in press releases issued by the DOJ in connection with the case. However, prosecutors have failed to date to substantiate the claims, and the matter has become one of several prominent points of dispute.
In the letter to the FBI’s Giuliano, which has been widely reported on Asian news outlets, Zahidi wrote, “[B]ased on our information, Mr. Phua is neither a member nor is he associated with the ’14K Triad’.”
“Morever,” added Zahidi, “according to our records, Mr. Phua has, on numerous occasions, assisted the Government of Malaysia on projects affecting our national security and accordingly we continue to call upon him to assist us from time to time and as such we are eager for him to return to Malaysia.”
Earlier, Zahidi had written that his letter was drafted “upon written request of [Phua’s] Malaysian and American legal teams.
The Phua’s high-powered legal representation, including David Chesnoff, Thomas Goldstein and Richard Schonfeld, submitted the Zahidi letter into the official court docket for Phua’s defense on December 28th. However, both Malaysian officials and American prosecutors protested the release of the information — which has since become public anyway — and the Phua defense attorneys withdrew the Zahidi letter the following day.
Nonetheless, the contents of the letter were published on the Asian sites, with a backlash then ensuing against Zahidi, the Malaysian cabinet minister. Zahidi was forced to clarify that his statement was not a defense of Phua, whom some reports have described with terms such as “underworld kingpin.”
Revealing any sort of connection between the Malaysian government and Phua, however, was risky, and opposition-party PKR communications director Fahmi Fadzil has demanded Zahidi explain the connections further.
To date, Zahidi has not addressed the matter further. However, Paul Phua’s Malaysian attorney, Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, has continued the battle for public opinion by giving numerous interviews on how the FBI has unfairly depicted Phua as an organized-crime, 14K Triad leader.
It is doubtful the full tale of Phua’s deep background will ever be revealed, though the South China Morning Post’s breaking of the Zahidi letter included one other unusual detail. According to that report, Paul Phua had arranged — purchased? — a diplomatic title, somehow becoming San Marino’s declared ambassador to Montenegro despite being a Malaysian citizen.
It is through this acquired diplomatic immunity, some sources have alleged, that Phua may have arranged his quick release and departure from Macau on the similar online-gambling charges last May. Original Malaysian news reports on Phua’s Macau arrest in May declared that he was quickly deported — upon which time he flew to Las Vegas and the episode at Caesars Palace — but whether any “deportation” actually occurred is also in doubt.
When added to the ongoing battles in the US case over alleged illegal searches and numerous Fourth Amendment, constitutional violations, the case seems destined to remain in the headlines for months to come.
Paul and Darren Phua remain free on a combined $2.5 million in bond that was put up as surety by famed American poker pros Andrew Robl and Phil Ivey. Ivey and Robl are two of several pros who have repeatedly played against the Phuas in high-stakes cash games in Macau casinos.
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