24 Feb 2020
In 2017, Cheng Ting Kong was riding high. He co-owned a multi-million dollar business bringing high-roller gamblers from China into casinos around the country and he was busy building a $75 million dollar stake in Australia’s horse racing industry.
But behind the scenes, Australia’s national criminal intelligence agency was watching closely. So seriously were they taking the Hong Kong-based Cheng that, according to multiple sources who spoke to The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes, his name was on the list that includes “elite actors” – the “transnational, serious and organised crime targets that pose the greatest threat to Australia’s interests’.”
The Australian Priority Organisation Target List, or APOT, includes, according to comments by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Agency chief Mike Phelan in 2018, the “top tier of groups involved in serious and organised criminal activity causing harm to the Australian community”. It includes alleged money launderers and drug traffickers.
Mr Cheng has never been charged with or convicted of an offence, but he continues to be a target of money laundering investigations by Australian police.
So how was Cheng able to quietly build a business empire across Australia’s most regulated industries – casinos and horse racing – despite the suspicions held by authorities? And what due diligence were Crown, The Star and casino regulators doing over his years operating in Australia?
Despite his 2017 APOT listing Crown Resorts worked so closely with Mr Cheng’s Suncity junket that it became the casino’s main recruitment partner for Chinese high rollers. Until late last year, Suncity ran an exclusive gaming suite within Crown’s Melbourne casino. Suncity has also managed a VIP club at Sydney’s The Star, which, like Crown, paid Suncity millions to recruit high rollers.
Records sighted by The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes reveal Suncity-linked accounts in Macau have transferred at least half a billion dollars in and out of Australia, much of it passing through Crown’s Melbourne and Perth casinos.
Horseracing and financial records suggest Mr Cheng also spent up to $75 million in Australia: he bought the Eliza Park stud’s operations in Victoria and Queensland in 2013 for $17.8 million, and dozens of racehorses across the nation. At the time he bought the stud, Cheng told a horse racing magazine that the “investment in Australia will be significant both in terms of stallions and other bloodstock”. The launch of Mr Cheng’s stud business was held in Crown Casino in 2013 and was attended by 300 of Australia’s top breeders, horse owners and trainers who celebrated with champagne.
Last year, Mr Cheng was also involved in the purchase of the upmarket Sun Kitchen restaurant on Albert Park lake, one of Melbourne’s most exclusive locations. The restaurant serves Wagyu with black truffle, lobster, and an abalone claypot that costs $398.
A sensitive time
Despite his growing portfolio of Australian business interests, Mr Cheng’s story has remained hidden from public view until now. But industry sources said he had already emerged as a key figure in the ongoing state and federal inquiries into how Australia’s casino industry, and Crown in particular, partnered with suspected regional organised crime entities.
The anti-money-laundering body Austrac, the Australian Federal Police and the ACIC have all probed Mr Cheng’s financial activities — ongoing assessments which led to his elevation to the APOT list after November 2016.
Mr Cheng is one of two businessmen who run the Suncity business empire out of Hong Kong and Macau. The second is the dashing and high-profile Alvin Chau, who The Age and Herald reported has been banned from entering Australia due to his organised crime links. Mr Chau and Mr Cheng exercise control over various private and listed Suncity businesses via companies in the offshore tax haven, the British Virgin Islands.
In 2018, Asia’s leading gaming regulators, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, circulated a report to other sports betting and gaming regulators describing Suncity as having deep organised crime links and stating the club would ban Suncity figures. It said Mr Cheng was “suspected to have a Triad background and maintain links to organised crime … and may be of interest to Australian law enforcement authorities in relation to suspected large scale money laundering activities”.
By Nick McKenzie, The Age, 21 February 2020
Read more at The Age
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