One of New Zealand's biggest convicted drug smugglers spent $15 million at SkyCity casino - while receiving the unemployment benefit.
Van Thanh Tran was one of six casino high-rollers under surveillance by police in Operation Ghost, which targeted an organised crime syndicate smuggling large shipments of pseudoephedrine from China into Auckland.
Tran was the "boss" and has yet to be sentenced after earlier pleading guilty to importing and distributing pseudoephedrine, used to manufacture methamphetamine, including 250kg smuggled in a single shipment.
Also known as Peter or "Elder Brother Ching", Tran had been on the unemployment benefit since immigrating to New Zealand in 1993 until 2012. A father of three, he has lived at a number of addresses in Auckland and Dunedin, where he ran a tiling company, but was living in Flat Bush, in South Auckland during the Operation Ghost investigation.
But a Herald investigation can reveal that the 48-year-old was one of six VIPs at SkyCity under surveillance in Operation Ghost.
The police discovered Tran's identity by using an undercover officer to pose as a drug dealer and infiltrate a pseudoephedrine syndicate, then "working their way up the tree". Tran was sitting at the top.
He sold pseudoephedrine in bulk to wholesalers with their own supply networks, but kept his "hands clean" by using lieutenants to keep his stockpiles safe and deliver packages on his instructions.
Evidence given during the trial described him as a "big gambler", once losing $800,000 in a week, and a loan shark who would lend amounts as large as $300,000.
SkyCity records show he spent $15 million in a 15-month period and his volume of play - the churn of money won and lost - was $67 million.
Overall Tran lost more than $1.1 million.
The high-roller also held an account with SkyCity in which he deposited $2.5 million of gaming chips, cheques and cash in 11 months and withdrew $460,000 during the same time.
Police say this level of gambling is consistent with someone who can access substantial sums of cash despite declaring a much smaller legitimate income, according to an affidavit in a parallel civil court case to seize Tran's assets.
"Many of those involved in drug dealing activity attend casinos for the purpose of 'laundering' funds that have been generated through their unlawful activity."
The police have seized two homes from Tran, several cars including an Audi, $85,000 cash, bank accounts holding more than $200,000 as well as jewellery. Most of these assets were held in the names of family members.
The link between organised crime and the casino gives ammunition to the anti-gambling lobbyists who warned SkyCity could become a "scene for large-scale criminal activity or a meeting place for people who commit serious crimes".
But SkyCity said it was "extremely comfortable" it had met obligations under anti-money laundering and problem gambling laws, while the millions of dollars gambled "were not out of the ordinary" by VIP standards.
A spokesman said the casino could not comment on individuals for privacy reasons and strict disclosure rules in the anti-money laundering laws, but confirmed "a number of those people did come to our attention on several occasions".
"We were co-operative with the police from the start of this investigation. We are extremely confident that we took all appropriate actions under AML requirements and also that we took proactive steps from a host responsibility perspective," the spokesman said.
These steps - some of which predated Operation Ghost - included staff interventions, interviews, monitoring, and, in several cases, banning people from the casino.
"Only a few of the group of players identified by police were regular visitors to the casino, and the level of their play varied widely. In most cases their turnover was not out of the ordinary for local VIPs."
Any suspicious transactions are immediately reported to the Police Financial Intelligence Unit.
A spokesman for Internal Affairs said the department was committed to ensuring that casinos remained free from criminal influence or exploitation and held regular meetings with SkyCity and government agencies to discussing a "variety of issues".
He said the DIA worked closely with the police during Operation Ghost.
"Large amounts of money can be gambled in casinos and does not of itself necessarily raise issues. In the course of our operations, we liaise and co-operate with other enforcement agencies but would not take any action which could jeopardise a current operation."
VIP gamblers at SkyCity casino
"Peter" Van Thanh Tran
Spent $15 million in a 15-month period and his volume of play was $67 million. Overall lost $1.1 million. Also deposited $2.5 million of gaming chips, cheques and cash into SkyCity account in 11 months and withdrew $460,000. Also a loan shark. Pleaded guilty to pseudoephedrine charges.
Da Wen Shao
Banned for loan sharking. In the eight months prior, spent $3.3 million, with a turnover of $13.2 million and total losses of $248,000. Fled New Zealand.
Chuck Lou Tarm
Blamed his drug offending on his gambling addiction. Owed money to loan shark. Sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison.
"Alex" Zhi Tong Li
Known as a "big player". Convicted of pseudoephedrine and methamphetamine charges.
"J" (name suppressed)
Gambled $600,000 of family money and amassed a further $500,000 debts over two years. Banned for problem gambling and arranged deals for loan sharks. Yet to stand trial.
"M" (name suppressed)
Yet to stand trial.
Zhi Wei Yang
Had a total "buy in" of $2 million, a turnover of $14 million and total losses of $500,000. Despite this, he was not a VIP. Left New Zealand and still at large.
Small player who gambled socially. Was targeted by Joe Arama, the undercover police officer, to infiltrate the drug syndicate. Fled New Zealand.
SkyCity lounges served as office for criminal ringleaders
Operation Ghost did not uncover any evidence of drug deals taking place inside SkyCity but this is not the first time the casino has been linked in court to a major drugs operation.
Two ringleaders, Tac Kin Voong and Ri Tong Zhou, spent nearly $20 million at the casino in 12 months while using the VIP lounges as an office to conduct their criminal affairs.
In sentencing Zhou to 15 years in prison in 2009, Justice Rhys Harrison noted that anti-gambling lobbyists had warned the casino could become a "scene for large-scale criminal activity or a meeting place for people who commit serious crimes".
A 2007 report by the Department of Internal Affairs revealed "a significant amount of evidence" that predominantly Asian groups "were frequenting New Zealand casinos for the purposes of criminal networking, money laundering and social gambling using illegitimate funds".
Alongside the criminal inquiry of Operation Ghost, police launched a parallel investigation into the finances of the accused in a bid to seize their assets. "This investigation initially focused on a number of VIP members at SkyCity casino, in particular, the flow of money related to drug transactions through the casino," according to an affidavit sworn by Detective Inspector Bruce Good.
"From my experience and numerous intelligence reports and organised crime investigations, SkyCity casino and, in particular, the VIP facilities are a recognised money laundering risk and an environment within which numerous drug distribution groups work, both alone and alongside one another."
More than $20 million in assets were restrained under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act.
The law essentially forces someone to prove how an asset was paid for - even if they were acquitted on criminal charges.