US Gaming Executives in Sino-US Crossfire
Mogul Steve Wynn offered help in returning fugitive businessman to China
By: Toh Han Shih
A US Justice Department enforcement against gaming mogul Stephen Wynn is ringing alarm bells for Macau-based US casino operators. The accusation – that Wynn acted as an agent for the Chinese government in an ill-fated attempt to secure the return of a well-connected businessman who had fled China ahead of charges – means the US operators risk incurring the wrath of their own government as they try to be on good terms with Beijing.
The fugitive businessman, Guo Wengui – also known as Miles Kwok – is a friend and business colleague of former US President Donald Trump’s ally Steve Bannon and is a denizen of Trump’s Mar-a-Lego resort in Florida. Wanted in China for allegations of bribery, kidnapping, money laundering and rape, he was ranked among China’s 100 richest businessmen before he fled in 2014. The Chinese were so eager to get Guo back that a top official offered assistance in the US’s problems with the North Korean government.
While the case might appear to be a one-off, “it is highly unlikely that any US citizen in the current political climate would put their head above the parapet, given the US Justice Department's approach to the Wynn case,” said John Bruce, the founder and managing director of JB Advisory Services, a Hong Kong risk consultancy.
On May 17, officials filed the civil enforcement action in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to compel Wynn, previously chief executive officer of Wynn Resorts, to register under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as an agent of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) .
Wynn declined, the US Justice Department said. The Justice Department alleges Wynn acted at the request of Beijing out of a desire to protect his business interests in Macau.
“Should they successfully sue Steve Wynn, this will definitely raise red flags for the three US-based operators in Macau. MGM, with their partnership with Pansy Ho, will not be immune from potential consequences either,” Eric Coskun, director of casino projects at IGamix Management & Consulting, a Macau-based consultancy, told Asia Sentinel. “MGM would be most worried as they have a significant presence in Vegas and the Eastern Coast.”
MGM China Holdings, a Hong Kong-listed joint venture between US casino operator MGM Resorts and Ho, a daughter of the late Macau gaming tycoon Stanley Ho, operates two casinos in Macau. Sands China, a Hong Kong-listed subsidiary of Las Vegas Sands, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, operates a handful of casinos in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Wynn Resorts’ management may be pondering if it will be worthwhile bidding for a new gaming license in Macau or to sell its Macau properties, Coskun said.
“Sands, with the greatest (US) investment in Macau, would likely batten down the hatches and weather the storm as they know they are well-positioned to generate record EBITDA levels by 2025 given that Macau is steadily evolving into a mass grind action market, and having sold off all of their assets in Vegas, they would be most willing to take a stand against US regulators, should the need arise,” Coskun added.
According to a complaint on May 17, from June 2017 through at least August 2017, Wynn contacted Trump and members of his administration to convey Beijing’s request to cancel the visa or otherwise remove Guo from the US. Wynn’s case is connected to that of Elliott Broidy, a former fundraiser for Trump, and Sun Lijun, a former Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security who is now detained in China on separate corruption charges. Wynn served as the Republican National Committee finance chair from January 2017 through January 2018 and met Broidy through that work, said the complaint. From 2017 to April 2018, Broidy was deputy finance chairman of the RNC.
In June 2017, Broidy, on behalf of Sun, sought Wynn’s help in the effort to lobby for Guo’s extradition, according to the complaint, which alleged that at the same time Sun phoned Wynn to request his assistance. Wynn agreed to raise the matter with Trump and his officials, said the complaint.
On June 27, 2017, Broidy allegedly sent a message to Wynn through his wife, stating: “President Xi Jinping mentioned to President Trump at Mar-A-Lago that he would like [Guo] returned. Vice Minister [Sun] met with me and requested help with regard to [Guo]. The Vice Minister told me this is a matter of utmost importance to President Jinping [sic]. He promised to return certain US citizens held hostage by China and would accept a very large number of Chinese illegal immigrants for deportation back to China. Finally, he offered new assistance with regard to North Korea.”
Wynn spoke with Trump at a dinner the same night, expressing Beijing’s desire to get Guo back, the complaint said. The complaint alleged that after the dinner, Broidy texted Wynn through his wife that Sun was “extremely pleased and said that President Xi Jinping appreciates [Wynn’s] assistance.”
At a press conference of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on May 18, when asked about the US Justice Department’s action against Wynn, the ministry’s spokesman Wang Wenbin replied, “The US move is based on nothing but hearsay to deliberately hype up the ‘China threat’ theory. China always develops relations with other countries based on such principles as mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs.”
From June 2017 through at least August 2017, Wynn spoke several times with Sun, said the complaint, mentioning his business interests in Macau. In August that year, Wynn on multiple occasions visited the White House to have “what appeared to be unscheduled meetings” with Trump, the complaint revealed. “Some of these discussions, including a meeting on August 25, 2017, concerned the PRC national.”
The efforts to have Guo extradited were unsuccessful, said an Asia Sentinel report on September 5, 2020. Guo has since blazed a controversial path through the US, launching media projects with Bannon, G News, and the GTV Media Group. In 2021, he was forced to pay US$539 million in refunds and fines to the Securities & Exchange Commission in connection with illegal fundraising. He has also been accused of using an online misinformation network to promote the use of unproven treatments for COVID-19 as well as pushing conspiracy theories about vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
Sun continued to contact Wynn through October 2017, at which point Wynn told Sun he was unable to provide any more assistance and Sun should stop contacting him, the complaint disclosed. “(Wynn) wanted to exit the situation gracefully, preserve his business interests in China, and avoid offending anyone.”
“It is apparent that Steve Wynn saw advantage in assisting the PRC government and law enforcement. It was probably viewed as good PR for his Macau-based business and Wynn was for many years the obviously astute US operator in Macau,” Bruce said. “However, he did this as an individual and it is not a situation that you are likely to see again, particularly given that US authorities are much more anti-China in their rhetoric and actions now,” Bruce added.
In February 2018, Wynn resigned as CEO of Wynn Resorts and also chairman and CEO of Wynn Macau. At that time, he said he could no longer remain effective in his roles due to “an avalanche of negative publicity.” A Wall Street Journal article on January 27, 2018 cited “dozens of people” including Wynn Resorts employees alleging Wynn’s allegedly “decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct.”
On October 20, 2020, Broidy pleaded guilty in a US court to one charge of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act, by lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of the governments of Malaysia and China. Trump pardoned Broidy on January 19, 2021, Asia Sentinel reported the next day.
Asia Sentinel could not reach Wynn for comment. Wynn Macau did not reply to Asia Sentinel’s questions. Wynn's lawyers, Reid Weingarten and Brian Heberlig, said they disagreed with the department's legal interpretation of FARA and looked forward to proving their case in court, reported Reuters.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy