The case against an alleged Las Vegas bookie is hanging by a thread after a judge on Tuesday threw out evidence collected by federal agents who posed as “Internet repairmen.”
Malaysian businessman Paul Phua Wei-seng, 50, is accused of running an illegal sports betting ring out of three high-roller suites at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The multi-million dollar operation, said to be managed by Chinese and Malaysian nationals, was shuttered by an FBI raid in July. Eight suspects were arrested, including Phua’s 22-year-old son, Darren Wai Kit Phua.
But the government’s case is now jeopardy. Judge Peggy Leen concluded earlier this year that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s raid was authorized with evidence collected during a warrantless search of the Caesar’s Palace suites. “The government violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights,” Leen said after ruling the FBI’s methods unconstitutional.
FBI agents testified in court that they’d enlisted the help of a contractor at Caesars Palace to shut off Internet access to the three suites allegedly used by Phua and his associates. Agents disguised as “Internet repairmen” later placed hidden cameras inside the rooms.
The prosecution was hoping to use bets placed before the FBI’s ruse to keep the case afloat. According to Phua’s attorneys, however, that may no longer be possible. U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon ruled on Tuesday that the computers, cellphones, and cash collected during the raid are “fruit of a poisoned tree,” to quote defense attorney David Chesnoff.
The government now has until Friday to decide whether to drop the criminal charges altogether. Chesnoff told the Associated Press that he doesn’t think the government has a case. “There’s no more evidence from anywhere,” he said. Nevertheless, if convicted on all charges, Phua faces nearly 20 years in prison.
In addition to being a criminal defendant, Phua is a professional high-stakes poker player, the operator of a successful Macau junket business, and, prior to his arrest, was the San Marinese ambassador to Montenegro. The prosecution also alleges that he’s a member (read: gangster) of 14K, a massive Hong Kong-based Triad group.
Naturally, the defense denies Phua is involved in any underworld dealings, presenting their client instead as a respectable businessman. According to the FBI, however, he was also arrested in Macau for operating a major gambling operation that took in hundreds of millions of dollars.
In June, a month before Phua’s arrest in Las Vegas, a $645 million World Cup betting ring, also operated by Chinese and Malaysian nationals, was shut down by the Macau Judiciary Police.
Despite being labelled a flight risk by U.S. Attorneys, who claimed he was worth up to $400 million, Phua was granted bail last year. A U.S. magistrate ordered him and his son to put up as collateral a combined $2.5 million, in addition to a $48 million private jet.
According to Thomas Goldstein, Phua’s other attorney, the ill-gotten probable cause in his client’s case came to light only by mistake.
“[The FBI] avoided creating any documents that said they did it on purpose,” he told the AP on Tuesday. “It was just dumb luck that they happened to make a mistake on the video they turned over to the defense. I think they forgot they were being recorded.”