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By Alex Frew McMillan
HONG KONG, May 24 (Reuters) - Hong Kong tycoon Joseph Lau, who heads developer Chinese Estates Holdings, will face prosecution over bribery and money laundering in a land deal in Asia’s gambling capital, Macau, Chinese Estates said in a statement on Thursday.
A court in Macau on Wednesday formally accepted an accusation by the public prosecutor that Lau had a case to answer on the charges, the company said. The court denied a request by Lau that the case be thrown out for lack of evidence. No date was set for the trial.
It is the second high-profile corruption case involving a Hong Kong property company in two months, following the arrests on suspicion of bribery in late March of Thomas and Raymond Kwok, who run Asia’s largest developer, Sun Hung Kai Properties . Their estranged brother, Walter, the former head of the company, was arrested at the start of this month
Lau, 61, is Hong Kong’s fifth-richest man, according to Forbes, worth $6.5 billion as of February. The former Goldman Sachs employee was one of the first people to buy a Boeing 787 Dreamliner for personal use.
He also collects art and red wine, and has invested heavily in London property. The divorced tycoon’s love life is a staple of Hong Kong’s tabloids, with Lau linked to a string of former Miss Hong Kongs.
The prosecutor in Macau has alleged in court that Lau, chairman and CEO of Chinese Estates, and another high-profile tycoon, Steven Lo, chairman of the South China Football Club and movie-and-music entertainment group BMA Investment, offered a HK$20 million ($2.6 million) bribe to a former Macau government official.
They prosecutor alleged they did so to assure the purchase of five plots of land next to the Macau International Airport and near the Cotai Strip, a string of casinos.
Chinese Estates is building a multi-tower luxury development on the site, naming it La Scala, after the Milan opera house. Lo sold Chinese Estates the company, Full Moon, that owns the 78,000 square metres of land.
Property brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle, which put in the winning bid for Full Moon, told Reuters it was assisting with the investigation.
The former official alleged to have been bribed, Ao Man-long, was Macau’s secretary for transport and public works and the most senior government figure ever arrested by Macau’s anti-graft agency. He is already serving 28-1/2 years in jail for accepting bribes to speed approval of projects.
The claims that Lau paid a bribe surfaced in a new trial, with Ao facing six fresh charges of bribery and three of money laundering.
Lau has denied any wrongdoing. He was called as a witness in Ao’s new trial but did not appear, while Lo testified that he did not pay a bribe. Prosecutors say they found a cheque for HK$20 million that Lau signed with his brother, Thomas Lau, in Ao’s home, part of a paper trail linking the payment from Full Moon to Ao’s company Ecoline.
Trading in shares of Chinese Estates Holdings was suspended on Thursday. They closed down 2.2 percent at HK$9.82 on Wednesday. (Reporting by Alex Frew McMillan; Editing by Richard Pullin and John Mair)