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Did Paul Phua expect diplomatic immunity for his sports betting activities?

TAGs: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Las Vegas, paul phua, Phil Ivey, richard yong, san marino, sports betting

paul-phua-san-marino-ambassadorFree at last, free at last. Malaysian national Wei Seng ‘Paul’ Phua, the high-stakes poker player and reputed owner of Asian online gambling giant IBCbet, was (finally) released on bail late Monday. Phua, his son Darren and six other individuals had been arrested in Las Vegas earlier this month after reportedly running a FIFA World Cup online betting operation out of three high-roller villas at Caesars Palace. The indictment claims the ring handled as much as $360m in wagers – primarily from Asian bettors but at least some from US residents – before police turned off the taps.

Although Phua’s high-stakes poker buddies Phil Ivey and Andrew Robi had put up $2.5m in cash to enable Phua & Son to make bail, the accused pair was quickly re-detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials ahead of an expected deportation proceeding. Late Monday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the Phuas had been released from ICE custody. The pair will reportedly wear GPS ankle bracelets while residing at the home of a Las Vegas doctor until there’s some kind of resolution to their legal difficulties. In addition to the $2.5m cash, the elder Phua has put up his $48m Gulfstream jet as collateral.

Many observers have wondered why Phua, who was among those arrested in June in Macau for what authorities called the biggest sports betting bust in the SAR’s history, chose to immediately fly to the United States (of all places) in order to continue his activities. The tantalizing suggestion has since emerged that Phua might have been relying on diplomatic immunity to ward off any fallout from his sports betting escapades.

On Tuesday, the South China Morning Post reported that Phua had been serving as the Republic of San Marino’s non-resident ambassador to Montenegro since February 1, 2011, an appointment that allowed him to hold a diplomatic passport. In June 2011, San Marino’s foreign minister told online news portal Libertas that Phua’s gaming ties would help bring about construction of a luxury hotel project in the Italian city-state, although no hotel was ever built.

It seems Phua’s diplomatic undoing came about because his status was never formalized, as Phua apparently never submitted his credentials to the appropriate authorities in Montenegro for approval. That ship has now sailed following Phua’s arrest in Macau, which prompted San Marino to rescind the nomination and ask Phua to return his passport.

Meanwhile, Ivey has reportedly pledged between $500k and $1m to bail out another suspect in the case. Court filings say Ivey is going to bat for 22-year-old Malaysian poker player Wai Kin Yong, whose 56-year-old father is also among those charged. Seng Chen ‘Richard’ Yong, who placed eighth in the inaugural Big One For One Drop super-high-roller tourney, is also a junket operator in Macau and is willing to post his own bail, provided the authorities allow him access to the $2m he reportedly has stashed in a Caesars Palace safe. US Magistrate Judge Bill Hoffman is expected to issue a decision on the Yongs’ incarceration later this week.

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