WASHINGTON (AP) — Dramatic new video obtained by The Associated Press, filmed through the lapel camera carried by an undercover government agent, shows how the FBI tricked its way inside a luxury villa at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas as part of a major international gambling bust.
Defense lawyers said the FBI shut off Internet access to the suspects then impersonated repair technicians to get inside and collect evidence.
The video shows investigators devising code words to use while they were inside, a back-and-forth about the cover story for an agent, who adopted the name “Sam,” which he had used “for other stuff” in the past, and a brief exchange about how another investigator should dress for the role of a technical repair nerd.
“If you put on that shirt, you have to look the part. Go all the way,” said Mike Wood, an outside technician working for Caesars, advising Nevada Gaming Control Board Agent Ricardo Lopez before Lopez headed to one of the suites the morning of July 4.
The AP obtained about 30 minutes of audio and video recordings of the covert reconnaissance recorded over two days.
On another visit to a villa on July 5, Lopez appeared to try to fix an Internet outage for several minutes while glancing around the room and asking more than once to view a laptop screen to verify that Internet connectivity was still down. Defense lawyers said in their filing that Mike Kung, the FBI agent, was sent inside because he spoke Chinese.
Still undercover, Lopez appeared to call Wood from inside the villa and asked him to “check the frame,” the code they had previously worked out. In a brief back and forth, Wood responded that he would “trace the wire and make sure it’s tied down good.”
Defense lawyer Thomas Goldstein, who is challenging evidence the government collected in what he described as an illegal search, said that was code to turn Internet access back on.
After the agents left the villa, Lopez was recorded saying he saw the Internet address of the website that defendant Wei Seng Phua was operating, adding, “Phua had the odds up on his page the whole time.” Federal authorities described Phua, 50, as a high-ranking member of the 14k Triad, a Chinese organized crime group. Goldstein said Phua denied that allegation, which he said had nothing to do with the criminal case in Nevada.
Phua, his son Darren Wai Kit Phua, Seng Chen Yong, Wai Kin Yong and four others were arrested in July after federal agents raided three high-roller villas at the hotel. All eight face charges of transmission of wagering information, operating an illegal gambling business, and aiding and abetting. None of defendants has entered a plea, but Goldstein said they all deny wrongdoing.
Phua also faces charges of running an illegal sports gambling business in Macau. He was arrested in the Chinese gambling enclave on June 18 and flew to Las Vegas a few days later.
The FBI employed the ruse against the recommendation of an assistant U.S. attorney, Kimberly Frayn, according to defense lawyers. They filed a 54-page motion late Tuesday night in federal court in Las Vegas to dismiss evidence in the case. According to a conversation recorded by an investigator for the hotel, the prosecutor told FBI agents “it was a consent issue,” the lawyers said.
Under U.S. law, a person whose property is inspected generally must waive his constitutional protections against unreasonable searches unless authorities obtain a warrant. Evidence collected improperly is not supposed to be used at trial.
The FBI in Las Vegas referred questions about the practice to the U.S. Attorney’s Office there. Natalie Collins, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden, said prosecutors were aware of the allegations being made by defense lawyers but declined to comment, citing a pending trial.
The gambling case was at least the third to surface in recent weeks raising questions about tactics by federal agents pursuing criminal investigations.
The Drug Enforcement Administration set up a fake Facebook account using photographs and other personal information it took from the cellphone of a New York woman arrested in a cocaine case in hopes of tricking her friends and associates into revealing incriminating drug secrets.
In another case, the FBI sent a fake news story it attributed to The Associated Press to trick a suspect in a bomb-threat case into clicking on the website link and revealing his location. The AP objected that the FBI’s practice was “unacceptable” and “undermined AP’s credibility.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
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