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  • By Alexie Zotomayor

Big money on a tiny island

Where there is a casino, there are often suspicions of a nefarious narrative lurking behind its operations. In the case of Saipan’s Best Sunshine, it was only a matter of time before the purported story revealed itself. Is it a money-laundering operation?

It could be, according to Bloomberg’s Nov. 13 report, which claimed the Saipan establishment is under federal scrutiny due to its “suspicious financial flows.”

“Nothing about the facility, which opened last year on the U.S. island of Saipan, hints at the money flowing through it—table for table, far more than at the biggest casinos in Macau, the world’s number-one gambling capital,” Bloomberg reported. “Nor is there any sign of the connections of its owner, Hong Kong-listed Imperial Pacific International Holdings Ltd., which has a market value of $2.4 billion.”

Bloomberg said Best Sunshine is reporting daily revenue of about $170,000 for each of its VIP tables in the first half of the year. The suspiciously improbable number, according to Bloomberg, is almost eight times the average of Macau’s largest casinos. “Its 16 VIP tables alone generate revenue that’s more than half of the receipts from 178 high-stakes tables at Wynn Resorts Ltd.’s flagship casino in the Chinese territory, a 20-story palace with three Michelin-starred restaurants,” the report said.

“The revenue figures, or actual wins by the house, are just a fraction of total bets. In September, Imperial Pacific reported a record $3.9 billion in bets at its casino—meaning the 100 or so high-rollers who it says come through its doors monthly each wagered an average of $39 million.”

Those incredible volumes of cash have reportedly drawn the attention of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Imperial Pacific, however, responded with a threat of possible legal action against what it called “false reporting,” as denied the casino is facing federal investigation.

In an announcement posted on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the Imperial Pacific’s board said, “The Group has never received any investigation notice from the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.”

The casino operator also said it has implemented stringent internal control measures and has fully applied an anti-money laundering system to ensure compliance with applicable U.S. laws and regulations. It said its Saipan casino has never gone below 300 in the number of visitors every night. Given it has only 38 gaming tables that can serve up to six players at a given time, Imperial Pacific said its “service capacity has saturated.”

Imperial Pacific is the exclusive casino operator on Saipan. According to Bloomberg, its power list includes a former director of the Central Inttelligence Agency, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and three former U.S. governors, including past chairmen of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees. Behind them all: a Donald Trump protege, Mark Brown, who ran the Republican president-elect’s Atlantic City casino empire and is now Imperial Pacific’s chief executive officer.

The developer of the $7 billion, multi-phase, multi-year casino complex construction has been operating a temporary casino since July 2015 at the ground floor of the Duty Free building in Garapan. Casino supporters in the Northern Mariana Islands government said the opening of the casino provided a much needed impetus for other small businesses to develop at its periphery.

Manuel A. Sablan, executive director of the Commonwealth Development Authority, noted the upbeat economic activities on island since the days of the garment factories.

Casino operations were legalized in the CNMI during the term of the late Gov. Eloy S. Inos.

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