On 14 July 2017, the sky above a bay on the Adriatic Coast was struck with searchlights, fireworks and flashing strobes bursting from an outdoor stage. Hundreds were gathering on a balmy summer evening for a night of bombast and opulence. A Chinese dragon swaggered through the multitude, acrobats in glitter and leotards bent, spun and stretched, Bosnian superstar Dino “The Wizard” Merlin serenaded the crowd, and a hostess in a long white ballgown, twice her own height, floated above the multitude, carried away by a hot air balloon.
This shameless display of affluence heralded the re-opening of the Maestral Hotel and Casino, in the town of Pržno, in NATO member Montenegro, a small Balkan country with just over 600,000 people.
The guest of honour was the Prime Minister Duško Marković, who took to the podium with an address of thanks to the investors in the hotel.
“The Maestral hotel has been recognised in Europe and beyond as one of the symbols of Montenegro’s tourism,” said the Prime Minister of the dominant force in Montenegrin politics, the Democratic Party of Socialists. “Today we see it in a new design, as a prestigious example of construction on the Montenegrin coast… and the best confirmation of Montenegro and its investment potential.”
With 196 rooms and 18 suites, the hotel was set to become a haven for gambling and a magnet for poker enthusiasts, with slot machines, roulette, gaming tables and VIP tournaments.
Speaking about the Maestral hotel and its owners, Marković declared that the government appreciated the “efforts, trust and partnership of the company Monte Rock”, which ploughed €50 million into the hotel over two years, since it purchased the troubled property from Slovenian state-owned gambling authority, the HIT group, and smartened up the hospitality hub.
“Our partners [in the hotel] have strongly contributed to achieving international standards in the field of hotel management and sustainable development,” the PM added.
Such lavish praise was accompanied by a ribbon-cutting ceremony, where Markovic stood alongside one of the major investors, the 54-year old Malaysian Paul Phua.
But who is this man?
Phua is a multi-millionaire bookmaker who was convicted for running an illegal betting scheme in Malaysia during the European Football Championships in 2004, and arrested in both Macau and Las Vegas for similar operations in the World Cup in 2014.
There is indication that he bribed his way out of jail in Macau, and the FBI has named him as a known member of the feared Hong Kong-based organised crime group, the 14K Triad. In both Macao and Las Vegas he evaded conviction.
The bookmaker has been behind IBCBet, according to FBI testimony. Now called Maxbet, this is one of the largest online betting sites in the world, but is restricted from operating in a plethora of countries.
Meanwhile the named parent company of IBCBet made a significant deposit – of €6.2 million – into a bank in Montenegro owned by Phua’s partner at the Maestral, a Greek businessman called Petros Stathis.
Phua is also facing trial in San Marino on accusations of bribing officials with over €2 million Euro, in connection with procuring a diplomatic passport in 2011. For three years Phua was Ambassador for San Marino to Montenegro, a position authorised by the Montenegrin Government, despite his shady past. This trial has been delayed until April 2019, due to the illness of one of the defendants.
But none of this seemed to matter to the political elite of Montenegro, as long as Phua – and his associates – poured in money to the tiny Republic. Neither the prime minister nor the president’s office would answer questions from EIC Network on its relationship with Phua.
In this investigation, we probe into Paul Phua’s colourful past, and examine how the Malaysian and his associates bought their way into Montenegrin high society.