By KELVIN CHANAP Business Writer
HONG KONG (AP) - Members of a congressional advisory panel believe U.S. regulators should tighten up scrutiny of casino companies operating in Macau, the world's top gambling market, because of the risk of money laundering.
"We need to go deeper into this," said Michael Wessel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which heard testimony in Washington on Thursday.
"I'm not sure the companies are looking as deep as they need to in their own organizations and the profits are driving their activities. It's worth some stricter scrutiny."
The commission was set up in 2000 to examine national security implications of the trade and economic relationship between China and the U.S. and make recommendations to the U.S. Congress.
Nevada-based Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd. and MGM Resorts International are among six operators that have shared in the casino boom in Macau, the only place in China where gambling is legal. The former Portuguese colony earned $38 billion in gambling revenue last year, about six times more than the Las Vegas Strip.
Most of Macau's gambling revenue comes from the tens of millions of mainland Chinese gamblers who visit each year. However, the central government in Beijing imposes strict capital controls that limit the amount of money that can be taken out of mainland China to about $3,000, or 23,000 yuan, in a single trip.
To get around these controls, Chinese gamblers use so-called junket agents who arrange for them to travel to Macau, visit private VIP rooms to gamble, lend them money and collect on debts. VIP gamblers account for about two-thirds of Macau's total gambling revenue.
A.G. Burnett, chairman of the Nevada State Gaming Board, testified that it is "common knowledge that the operation of VIP rooms in Macau casinos had long been dominated by Asian organized crime, commonly referred to as triads."
He said the casinos themselves may not be aware of illegal transactions.
"Criminal transactions are widely alleged to take place just out of the direct purview of the casino," he said.
The commission's concerns come as Sands and Wynn face investigations from U.S. authorities over their activities in Macau. The two companies earn most of their profits from the tiny gambling enclave, about an hour from Hong Kong by high-speed ferry.
Commission website: http://www.uscc.gov
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