MACAU—For decades, gambling tycoon Stanley Ho controlled all the casinos in this betting haven, which helped him amass one of the world's larger fortunes even as he battled allegations of connections to underworld figures.
Ho's monopoly on gambling in Macau now is fading. Macau opened the door to competition five years ago, and big foreign gaming firms are rushing in with new casinos. And just as Las Vegas once cleaned itself up, this former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong on China's coast has followed suit. It's beefed up its police, jailed criminal bosses and recast itself as a fun and convention destination.
U.S. gaming regulators have a lingering question, however: Have Stanley Ho and his empire of family businesses also changed their ways?
Ho's socialite daughter, Pansy, is under scrutiny by Nevada and New Jersey gambling regulators to determine whether she's a suitable partner for MGM Mirage in a $1.1 billion casino project in Macau that's nearly complete.
Nevada's Gaming Control Commission will meet later this month to vote on a lesser board's unanimous decision to give Pansy Ho and MGM Mirage the green light.
There's much for regulators to mull over, perhaps befitting a family that's defined Macau's recent history but has been cleaved by quarrels.
Stanley Ho's sister battled in court with him over her charges that she was cheated out of casino dividends. Then there's the matter of her lawyer, who was sitting in a McDonald's in Hong Kong last August when three men beat him bloody with baseball bats.
The culprits were never found, and it's still unclear whether the assault was related to the family dispute.
Stanley Ho also operates a casino in Pyongyang, North Korea, where he has long-standing ties, a matter that sparked a New York-based lobby group, Family Focus Coalition Against Casino Gambling Expansion, to fight the Ho-MGM Mirage partnership.
It's hard to overstate Stanley Ho's impact on Macau, which reverted to China in 1999. His casino and hotel empire makes up a third of the enclave's economic activity.
"This room is the Stanley Ho room," said Jose Rocha Dinis, a newspaper publisher, drawing on a cigar in a lounge of the posh Military Club in the heart of Macau. "The new bridge was paid one-third by Stanley Ho. He paid a lot of money for the airport. He gives money to everybody."
With a personal fortune estimated at $7 billion, the 85-year-old Ho ranks as the sixth richest person in Asia in a listing by Forbes magazine.
After four marriages, Ho has 17 children, which is also the number of casinos that his Sociedade de Jogos de Macau operates, including the new flagship Grand Lisboa, an elegant gilded structure that opened last month next to the old-style Casino Lisboa.
For most of the last four decades, his casinos were smoky low-ceiling affairs, with prostitutes loitering in the hallways and VIP rooms run by shady brokers.
"He's never had to operate a decent casino or hotel before. So he's had to broaden his experience," said David J. Green of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the global accounting firm, who's the director of gaming practice in Macau.
Competition has spurred Ho to action. His company has hired veteran Western casino executives and is working with investment bankers to go public and list shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, perhaps later this year.
He's also set up his daughter Pansy and son Lawrence with companies in his empire that are linked to foreign casino operators, eventual direct competitors of their father's company.
Pansy Ho, 44, has sought to distance herself from her father.
"Whether there are allegations regarding my father or how he runs his businesses has got absolutely nothing to do with how I conduct this partnership with MGM. I'm a separate entity," she told Macau Business magazine in February.
She and MGM Mirage declined to talk about their partnership.
U.S. casino companies have a lot riding on Macau, which overtook the Las Vegas Strip in gambling revenues last year. Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts have seen their stock prices soar after opening casinos here, the only gambling destination in greater China, with vast growth potential. Last year, the enclave drew 22 million visitors. Forecasts are for 35 million annually by the end of the decade.
Pansy Ho has no plans for casinos in the United States. But since MGM Mirage partnered with her, U.S. gaming regulators say they must look into her background.
"If anything goes bad in Macau, it could affect their licenses in Vegas," said Stephen G. Vickers, the head of International Risk, a risk-analysis firm in Hong Kong that's done extensive background work for the gaming industry.
Allegations of loan-sharking and underworld ties have swirled around Stanley Ho for decades, peaking in 1987, when an aide was hacked to death by machete in a park.
An avid ballroom dancer, Ho has always waltzed away from charges.
Yet the problems have circumscribed how he conducts global deals. Earlier this month, he slid out of a probity investigation by a Singaporean regulator, orchestrating a swapping of stakes by Malaysian and Hong Kong companies in different casino projects in Macau and Singapore. He's pulled out of other deals to avoid inquiries.
Some scholars say they doubt that the offspring of Asian family-empire founders such as Stanley Ho can move very far from their fathers' shadows.
"The patriarchs traditionally maintain controls," said Michael E. DeGolyer, a professor of government at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Indeed, at a 2005 groundbreaking for the 28-story MGM Grand Macau, his daughter's joint project, Stanley Ho showed up and rubbed elbows with MGM Mirage chief executive Terri Lanni. One local news report said Ho talked about the project as if it were his own.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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