The ghost of his unilateral and unauthorised letter to the FBI vouching for the character and integrity of Paul Phua, the international gambling kingpin when in United States custody last year, has come back to haunt the Home Minister, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who has since been elevated to be Deputy Prime Minister.
This follows the publication yesterday of the 18-page report by the international sports news agency, ESPN, from a year of interviews with investigators and Phua’s associates across eight countries and sifting through thousands of pages of court documents.
The ESPN report traced the humble beginnings of the “Reputedly the world’s biggest bookmaker, Sarawakian Paul Phua Wei Seng” from “a numbers runner in Borneo” and his graduation from a “ small time player to jet-setting high-stakes roller whose links to high-ranking officials in many countries and a fabulous legal team allowed him to slip the trap” laid by the US authorities and walked free form a Las Vegas court in June this year.
According to the ESPN’s investigative report, Phua made his name in the shadows of a 1997 football match-fixing incident that came to be known as the Floodlights Affair.
The report said that though never proven, his associates in the sports betting business credited him as the moneybags behind the shutdown of stadium lights at a crucial point in two lucrative English Premier League matches ― West Ham vs. Crystal Palace and Arsenal vs. Wimbledon ― the first confirmed incidence of Asian-backed match-fixing on British territory.
Flush with even more cash, Phua used it to develop the technology that laid the foundation for his multi-billion US dollar Internet-dependent IBCBet sportsbook empire that stretched across Asia to casino cities in Australia, Europe and the US and wherever there were players willing to place a bet on any sporting event.
IBCBet’s operations were first based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam but the US$600 million (RM2.6 billion) a year enterprise eventually registered in the Philippines, one of the few Asian countries that allowed online sportsbooks.
After Phua was arrested in the United States last year, the ESPN report said Phua had “many aces up his sleeve and called on those connections he had built over the years to hire a stellar legal team to defend and vouch for him” – and of these “officials in high places” named in the ESPN report is Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
This issue of Zahid, acting unilaterally and without knowledge or authority of the Police, the Foreign Ministry, the Cabinet or the Prime Minister, writing an infamous letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) vouching for the character of an alleged international gambling kingpin has come full circle, as it has again become an issue as a result of the ESPN report demanding proper accountability to Parliament and nation.
The whole Phua-Zahid episode has become very murky with conflicting accounts and explanations by different Ministers, with no one taking full responsibility for any final version.
The country was told at one time that the Cabinet meeting of 14th January this year heard a report by Zahid on his infamous letter to FBI, with different accounts by different Ministers as to what actually transpired – one that the Cabinet had “accepted” Zahid’s explanation and another that the Cabinet did not “accept” Zahid’s explanation, but merely heard it.
Later, another Minister came out with a third version of the Cabinet stand on Zahid’s infamous letter to the FBI – that the Cabinet was satisfied “in principle” with Zahid’s explanation.
Which was which?
At one stage, Zahid announced that he had a “stack of letters and agreements” his predecessors as Home Minister had signed with the United States which were like his infamous letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) vouching for the character of an alleged international gambling kingpin.
This was immediately denied by his two predecessors Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar who publicly denied that they had ever sent any such support letter unilaterally to the FBI.
Although Zahid insisted that his predecessor Home Ministers had written to the FBI like him, an eerie silence descended on the scene and no further revelation was forthcoming, and nobody knew whether it was Zahid or his predecessors who had lied!
Zahid had made a most astonishing claim about the “stack of letters and agreements” signed by his predecessors, and Parliament has a right to know which Home Minister had lied to Malaysians.
What also remained a mystery is Zahid, in his letter vouching for the character and integrity of Pual Phua, had said that the Malaysian government had enlisted Phua’s help in “national security projects”.
What were these “national security projects” involving an international gambling kingpin, which even the current Inspector-General of Police and previous Home Ministers did not know about?
With the ESPN investigative report re-opening the issue of Paul Phua and Zahid’s extraordinary ties with him, national interests warrant Zahid making a ministerial statement in Parliament on Monday to give the nation a final full accounting.