A magnet for shady deals
Raids and lawsuits have become a recurring state of affairs at the Imperial Palace Resort, a casino facility on Saipan operated by the Imperial Pacific International whose ownership is shrouded in mystery.
On paper, Carmen Fernandez, former Guam senator and former president of the Northern Marianas College, is listed as the sole member of the Imperial Pacific International CNMI but her role behind the scene is not known.
IPI, which has reported to have contributed more than $150 million in business gross revenue taxes to the CNMI government since opening business on Saipan in 2015, has been suspected to be a magnet for shady deals. It was thus not exactly a surprise to many when more than a dozen FBI agents swooped down on the island on Nov. 7 and raided the casino facility, the governor’s office on Capital Hill, the Legend Realty office, Imperial Pacific International’s finance and human resources offices at Marianas Heights Building, and the Marianas Consultancy Services LLC owned by Yue, who was the managing director of the now-defunct Tinian Dynasty.
The search warrant, a copy of which was leaked to the media, indicated the raid was linked to an FBI investigation for money laundering, wire fraud conspiracy, bribery and illegal political contributions by foreign nationals among others. Seven pages of seized items listed tons of documents including including tax papers, bank records, business organization papers, travel receipts and lease agreements among others. Other items listed for confiscation were jewelry, luxury items and other suspicious assets.
Subjects of the search warrant include Gov. Ralph Torres, first lady Diann Torres, his bothers Vincent, Victorino and Joaquin Torres, who own law officers, his sisters-in-law Brenda and Rowina Torres, casino lobbyist Alfred Chi-Yam Yue, realtor Ron Li Anderson.
“It was “sad and embarrassing for the people of the Northern Marianas to know that our governor is under investigation by the FBI,” said CNMI’s Delegate to Congress Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan said.
While noting that the system of justice presumes everyone innocent until proven guilty, Sablan said, “The people have a right to be protected from corruption no matter where it occurs, particularly if it’s at the highest office of our Commonwealth.”
The FBI raid took place barely weeks after the IPI faced the two latest in a series of lawsuits that have piled up on the casino operator. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued IPI on Sept. 24 for sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. IPI has previous cases of labor abuse, federal wage law violations, illegal hiring, work safety violations and human trafficking.
During first raid on the casino facility in April 2017, FBI agents found unlocked a cabinet full of Chinese passports belonging to Chinese tourists who were illegally working at IPI’s construction site.
On Sept. 24, Pacific Rim Land Development LLC filed a $21 million lawsuit against IPI for breach of contract and nonpayment of debt owed to the contractor for work completed at the project site. Pacific Rim is a Guam company contracted by IPI to continue the construction work on the casino project in Garapan.
The lawsuit named IPI and five “John Does” as defendants in the civil lawsuit. Pacific Rim has been unable to ascertain the owners of the casino facility.
The FBI’s search warrant for the most recent money laundering investigation did not include names of IPI individuals as well. The grand jury, however, has subpoenaed IP executives and key employees.
IPI, is an investment holding company, whose true ownership has been an obscure detail. In a financial report posted on its website, Cui Li Jie is listed as the board’s chairperson and executive director. The Saipan casino operator, Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC, is identified as “an indirect wholly-owned subsidiary of the Company, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (“CNMI”).
Fernandez’s “ownership” of Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC was not publicly known until a tax lien filed by the Internal Revenue Service on June 25, 2019 became accessible online. Her direct connection to the IPI CNMI was never disclosed when she launched the casino management to NMC’s workforce development programs in February 2018. Graduates of the casino management course are promised to secure jobs at the Imperial Palace Resort.
Following the program’s launch, IPI issued a statement commending NMC for adding the casino management to its course offerings. Fernandez did not her renew her contract when her term expired in September 2018. She could not be reached for comment as of this writing.
The Hong Kong-listed Imperial Pacific has the sole license to operate the only full-fledged casino on Saipan. Its advisory committee has been chock-full of prominent US figures, including former FBI director Louis Freeh, former New York governor David Paterson, and Edward Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and former chairman of the US Democratic National Committee. The trio were appointed on April 20, 2016.
Former US Central Intelligence Agency Director Robert James Woolsey serves as a non-executive member of the board of directors. A former US judge, Eugene Sullivan, was also a non-executive director, leaving in June 2017.
According to a Wikipedia entry, Pacific International was founded in February in 2002 and originally named First Natural Foods and principally engaged in the food business.
In an article published on Feb. 21, 2017, the South China Morning Post reported that Yeung Chung-lung, founder and former chairman of First Natural Foods, was convicted of embezzlement and ordered by ordered Hong Kong court to pay back ordered the former chairman of First Natural Foods Holdings to pay back HK$84.9 million (US$10.9 million) he embezzled from the company.