- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

LAS VEGAS (AP) - An FBI agent was grilled Monday in federal court about whether investigators intentionally deceived a judge to arrest a Malaysian businessman, his son and six others who prosecutors said were operating a $13 million illegal international Internet sports gambling operation out of high-roller suites on the Las Vegas Strip.

FBI Special Agent Minh Pham repeatedly acknowledged failing to inform the magistrate judge who issued a search warrant in July that agents had a Caesars Palace contractor intentionally disable Internet service to three plush suites, then posed as repair technicians to gain entry and collect evidence to prove probable cause.

“I didn’t think it was important to provide all the details,” Pham testified during tense and painfully detailed cross-examination by Thomas Goldstein, an attorney for Wei Seng “Paul” Phua, 50, and his son, Darren Wai Kit Phua, 23.

“We had consent from Caesars employees,” the agent said.

Goldstein pressed harder. Had Pham ever heard of another law enforcement agency disrupting Internet, telephone or electric service to induce a target of an investigation to invite agents into a residence?

No, Pham answered. Not exactly. “But we always use ruses in undercover operations,” he said.

Pham testified that an assistant U.S. attorney in Las Vegas didn’t immediately endorse the idea of FBI and Nevada Gaming Control Board agents posing as computer technicians. With a deadline approaching, he didn’t ask her again.

“Time was of the essence for us to obtain the search warrant before the individuals left the United States,” Pham said.

Investigators believed the gambling operation took bets on the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. Pham said he did continue to talk about the ruse with his FBI supervisory agent and bureau attorneys.

Goldstein and David Chesnoff, attorney for Paul Phua, want U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen to throw out any evidence against the Phuas as the tainted result of an improper search.

Federal law generally requires a person to waive constitutional protections against unreasonable searches unless authorities obtain a warrant. Evidence collected improperly is not supposed to be used at trial.

The defense attorneys argue that no American could feel safe at home if searches could be based on similar deceptions.

They point to questions about Drug Enforcement Administration agents setting up a fake Facebook account using photographs and other personal information from the cellphone of a New York woman arrested in a cocaine case in hopes of tricking her friends and associates into revealing incriminating drug secrets.

In another case, the FBI sent a fake news story it attributed to The Associated Press to trick a suspect in a bomb-threat case into clicking on a website link and revealing his location. The AP objected that the FBI practice was unacceptable and undermined AP’s credibility.

Leen made no immediate ruling Monday.

She scheduled 90 more minutes of testimony on Tuesday, and said she would schedule testimony from Nevada Gaming Control Board Agent Ricardo Lopez on another day.

Goldstein suggested at one point that the FBI was motivated from the start by the prospect of being able to confiscate Paul Phua’s multimillion-dollar Gulfstream private jet.

The aircraft has been impounded at McCarran International Airport as a condition of Phua’s release on $2 million bail.

Chesnoff and Goldstein also dispute prosecutors’ claims that Phua is a member of a Chinese organized crime group called the 14K Triad.

Pham said the FBI was aware of Phua before he was arrested June 18 in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau and accused of similar allegations of illegal wagering on World Cup soccer games. Phua flew days later to Las Vegas, where he was arrested July 13.

Monday’s hearing came after five Chinese citizens pleaded guilty last week to reduced charges in the case, paid a combined $950,000 in fines and forfeited hundreds of thousands of dollars each in return for sentences of probation and an order to leave the U.S. and not return for at least five years.

Hui Tang, 44, was the only one to plead guilty to a felony - illegal transmission of wagering information. He was fined $250,000 and ordered to forfeit $250,000 in cash and electronic equipment.

Four others pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of being an accessory after the fact. Charges were dropped against a sixth person, who also agreed to return to China.

The Phuas face felony charges including operating an illegal gambling business and unlawful transmission of wagering information charges that each carry a possible penalty of up to seven years in prison.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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