12/05/2003 12:00AM

Casinos avert laundering scheme

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Las Vegas gaming operators diligently track suspicious betting patterns. Money laundering is a dirty word in Las Vegas, and the slightest suspicion of it will trigger heavy scrutiny from the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, Nevada casinos have a heightened awareness of big bettors and their wagering activities. The potential of laundering money to support terrorism is a major concern in this city because of its fast action and big bankrolls. With Las Vegas's high betting volume, it might seem like a haven for money-launderers.

A recent case in point is that of Japanese national Susumu Kajiyama, the so-called "Emperor of Loan Sharks" in Japan, who, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was arrested Nov. 20 and charged with organized crimes involving leading Las Vegas casinos. It was the Nevada Gaming Control Board who broke the case and tipped off law enforcement agencies in both the U.S. and Japan.

Working with other Japanese nationals, according to officials, Susumu made several extended trips to Las Vegas, and the suspects used their foreign agent accounts to obtain thousands of dollars in gaming chips at a few Las Vegas casinos. A foreign agent account is a safety deposit account set up by casinos for foreign customers. The customer deposits money in his home country and uses the account to get markers in U.S. casinos. It enables high-rollers to avoid traveling with large sums of cash.

In Kajiyama's case, the Nevada Gaming Control Board observed that he and his associates would draw on their foreign accounts, $3,000 or more at a time, to bet at high-limit tables. But Kajiyama and associates never placed big bets at the tables. Instead, they were cashing in the chips for U.S. currency, which triggered the filing of suspicious activities reports to federal and state agencies. Since the Patriot Act, casinos have been required to report what they deem suspicious activities anytime a transaction involves $3,000 or more.

The Tokyo Police Department arrested Kajiyama, who allegedly maintained foreign accounts at several major Las Vegas casinos, among them the MGM Grand and Caesars Palace. U.S. authorities believe Kajiyama's foreign agent accounts, set up in the spring of 2003, might have been used to launder several million dollars in the U.S.

At this point, gaming regulators do not know whether any charges will be brought in the U.S. against Kajiyama, and they indicate that it does not appear that any of the casinos who held foreign accounts for Kajiyama did anything illegal.

As a matter of fact, it was the Las Vegas casino authorities and their diligence that uncovered the activities that led to the arrests.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las vegas radio show.