Police expose drug money laundering in SkyCity NZ VIP rooms

It sounds like the latest plot to a Hollywood blockbuster, but a drug investigation which regularly took place at Auckland’s SkyCity casino, was the reality for one agent.

An undercover agent, known in the criminal underworld as Joe Arama, socialised in SkyCity’s VIP rooms to gain the trust of his target, Felix Lim. This was part of a task to expose Auckland’s underbelly which convicted at least 30 people associated with smuggling 250kg of drugs into New Zealand.

Known as Operation Ghost, the agent was tasked with Lim’s handler, who was a regular gambler, and gain his trust which he managed to do thanks to his assumed identity as a drug dealer from Wellington.

The duo would meet up opposite SkyCity at a diner where Lim would give the agent samples of pseudo ephedrine or methamphetamine – precursor ingredients for illicit drugs.

While the there was no evidence of drug deals taking place at SkyCity, Lim would take the agent to the VIP lounges at the gambling venue. According to an affidavit sworn by Detective Inspector Bruce Good, drug money would be laundered in the VIP areas by a number of underworld figures and their transactions through the New Zealand casino, including “Baldy Mark” Hoo.

SkyCity has since responded to these money-laundering allegations, stating it was “extremely confident” it met the rules outlined in the anti-money laundering (AML) laws.

A spokesperson for the casino did say “a number of those people did come to our attention on several occasions”.

Steps included interviews, staff meetings, monitoring and even bans place on specified patrons from the venue. At the staff meetings, members were told they should report any suspicious monetary activity to the Police Financial Intelligence Unit.

“Only a few of the group of players identified by police were regular visitors to the casino, and the level of their play varied widely,” the spokesman said.

“In most cases their turnover was not out of the ordinary for local VIPs.”

The New Zealand Herald identified 12 targets in Taskforce Ghost who were regularly at the high-roller lounge, with some, including “Peter” Tran, trying to blame the dealings on a gambling addiction in a bid to get a lighter prison sentence.

Tran was deemed a “big gambler” at his trial, where it was also revealed he once lost $800,000 in a week. SkyCity records also revealed he lost more than $1.1 million over 15 months at the casino.

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