The high roller who had a letter written by the home minister for his defence in a United States court, obtained a diplomatic passport through his ties with a former Republic of San Marino minister, now investigated for money laundering and corruption.
Paul Phua is now facing charges of illegal gambling in a United States court in Nevada, after being nabbed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) last year in Las Vegas casino Caesars Palace for operating an illegal online sports betting ring.
He held a diplomatic passport as the San Marino non-resident ambassador to Montenegro when he was arrested, but the San Marino government revoked his ambassadorship days after.
Phua was appointed on Feb 1, 2011, and the revocation was on July 16, 2014, according to official appointment and revocation letters from the San Marino government obtained by Malaysiakini .
San Marino, a tiny country measuring 61 square kilometres, is a microstate enclave in central Italy.
The landlocked hill-town is the third smallest state in Europe after the Holy See and the Principality of Monaco, and is even dwarfed by Perlis. It has a population of about 32,000 people.
The title of non-resident ambassador offered Paul the use of a diplomatic passport, providing him VIP status, which he had used to jet set around the world until his arrest in Las Vegas.
7-star hotel project
San Marino daily Libertas journalist Antonio Fabbri, who has been writing on the links between Phua and top officials in the San Marino government, said Puah’s company Black Sea Pearl was initially involved in a seven-star hotel project.
The project never took off, even after millions of euros were transferred from a Swiss bank account into his company’s account.
The other key players in the project were named as former health minister Claudio Podeschi, one Stefanos Balafoutis and Petros Stathis.
FBI notes confirmed Stathis as having had many dealings with Phua and his son Darren Phua, as shown in the recorded iMessage telephone chats.
In one of the chats, Stathis told Darren: “Let me know by message if I need to activate the prime minister or San Marino ministry of foreign affairs.”
FBI documents also stated that the investigators did not know how Stathis was able to obtain access to the Interpol (international police) system to check for arrest warrants, as in after Phua’s arrest in Macau - a few weeks before his Las Vegas arrest.
Stathis was also recorded as having helped fix Darren’s visa to the United States by contacting the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur after Darren had asked for Stathis’ help last May.
Darren had told Stathis: “I’ve got rejected two years back and I’m afraid they will reject me this time. Do you think you can help me on it?”
Two days later, Stathis confirmed that the visa was ready, adding that Darren is a “possible immigrant with limited funds to support the stay there”.
Days after Phua’s arrest in Las Vegas, the San Marino media reported that he was named in investigation papers pertaining to former health minister Claudio Podeschi ( right ) and his company, Clabi Ltd.
Podeschi was arrested for money laundering and corruption and his assets worth 14 million euros were seized.
“And yet, the two-and-a-half million paid into the account of Clabi and coming from a Swiss bank account was made payable to the Black Sea Pearl, directed by Wei Seng Phua (Paul), now arrested by the FBI and dismissed from the diplomatic Marino,” the San Marino Notize reported.
“Apparently the contact between Phua and Podeschi would be favoured by Stefanos Balafoutis (a suspect in the investigation) and Petros Stathis,” it quoted Appelate Court judge Lanfranco Ferroni in the case of former minister Podeschi.
“And speaking of Clabi, the judge asked why the company was incorporated in the Marshall Islands, at the time when the taxes in Marino was equally favorable,” added the report.
Phua has two passports?
When contacted by Malaysiakini to check out on illegal diplomatic passports, Wisma Putra officers stated that it “is very fishy” that a Malaysian can represent another country, for instance San Marino, as a diplomat to another country, Montenegro.
“Further, our laws do not allow dual citizenship. The law states that if a Malaysian accepts a passport of another country, his Malaysian passport would be automatically revoked.
“Then again, it is up to the discretion of the Immigration Department, which is under the Home Ministry,” said one officer.
The US Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case in Nevada, declined to reveal if Phua holds two passports, so as to not jeopardise the case.
The US government also refused to comment on whether Phua is charged as a Malaysian citizen, given that he was also holding the San Marino diplomatic passport at the time of his arrest in Las Vegas.
“The (US) government cannot comment on the type of passport that Paul Phua was using,” US Attorney’s Office spokesperson Natalie Collins told Malaysiakini in an email.
Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said yesterday the cabinet received an explanation from Zahid on his letter to the FBI to clear Phua’s name.
Zahid had written to the FBI last December to clear Phua of his links with the Hong Kong-based 14K triad, following the triad link being drawn in the course of the US legal proceedings.
The letter was submitted by Phua’s defence lawyers in the bid to clear him of alleged links with the 14K triad.
This was done to wiggle him out of entrapment charges, where the authorities had obtained a warrant to raid his villa in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on July 9 last year.
However, Paul’s lawyers withdrew the letter on Dec 29, 2014 - on the same day it was submitted - due to objections from the prosecutors based on court technicalities.
The Phuas are currently out on bail and awaiting a status hearing that is to be held on Jan 22, the US Attorney’s Office said in an email to Malaysiakini .