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The Straits Times, 3 Apr 04

Gamble that went wrong
by Anil Menon

APB executive juggled accounts cleverly to feed his casino sprees

JUST five days after joining Asia Pacific Breweries as its finance manager on Jan 20, 1999, Chia Teck Leng, 44, was busy hatching a plot to fraudulently obtain credit facilities from a foreign bank. The job had come as a blessing because he was in a deep hole - luck had deserted him the previous year and he had accumulated gambling debts of more than $1 million.

A habitual gambler, Chia started from $200 bets and graduated to A$400,000 wagers. Casino operators and other creditors were giving him sleepless nights. Chia had been a habitual gambler since at least 1994, when he was a financial controller with Swire Pacific Offshore, a marine services company. He had plunged deep into debt during 1995-1996 and owed several banks about $100,000 in the form of overdrafts and credit card dues.

But fortune smiled on him the next year when he began visiting Star Cruise ships - almost every fortnight - to try his luck at the gambling tables. He won on several occasions, and was even offered a credit line of $75,000.

In less than a year, his winnings amounted to about $1 million, and he was able to climb out of the red. However, the tide turned in August 1998. In a gambling spree that lasted a fortnight, he not only lost all his previous winnings, but racked up new debts as well.

By the time he joined APB, the debts had mounted sky-high, and he was a desperate man. He trained his sights on Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB), a north European merchant bank with a worldwide network of offices, including one in Singapore. Submitting forged documents, he was able to open an account in APB's name, with himself as the sole signatory. The bank also extended a credit facility for $500,000 - which, of course, he intended to use himself.

The plan went off without a hitch, and, gambler that he was, Chia pushed his luck further. Between January 1999 and March last year, he carefully created more fictitious documents and obtained credit and loan facilities in APB's name from four foreign banks. They were SEB, the Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC), the Mizuho Corporate Bank and the Bayerische Hypo-und Vereinsbank Aktiengesellschaft (HVB). Ironically, the two Japanese banks and the German one approached Chia because they wanted a slice of APB's business. He was only too happy to oblige.

Meanwhile, APB had no idea of what its finance manager was doing behind its back. Chia managed to remain in sole control of all these accounts by forging director board resolutions that authorised him to receive the credit and loan facilities provided by all four banks, sign all transactions and operate the bank accounts on behalf of APB. To forge the signatures of the various directors of APB, he obtained signature specimens from annual reports and internal documents. He then practised the signatures till he was sure they would pass muster.

Chia's modus operandi was to draw money from SMBC, Mizuho and HVB, and transfer it to the SEB account. From here, the money was siphoned into his two personal accounts with DBS before it was remitted to casinos in Australia, Britain, Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Philippines. He rolled over funds provided by the banks, making timely deposits to each account whenever repayments were due, thus creating the impression of a credit-worthy customer.

During a crunch situation in November 1999, he even withdrew $53 million from an APB account with OCBC. He managed to replace the entire amount by October 2002, escaping detection. As the amount of illegal money available increased, so did the stakes for which Chia gambled.

From having placed $200 bets during his Star Cruise days, he graduated to $5,000 flings. It was but a short step from there to the big leagues, where he placed single bets of A$20,000 (S$25,800) in Australian casinos and 25,000 (S$77,900) in British ones. He even played for A$400,000 a hand at the Crown Casino in Melbourne.

Having acquired a reputation as one of the world's elite high rollers, Chia was provided with private jets to fly to casinos in Australia and London. Various casinos also laid out invitations for him to visit their tables. His largesse was evident back home, too. He bought a Merce des-Benz and an apartment in Singapore while giving away more than $300,000 in cash and gifts to various people, including his 22-year-old girlfriend, China national Li Jin.

The bubble burst when the Commercial Affairs Department got wind of Chia's activities. He was arrested on Sept 2, 2003. Chia's position in APB, his knack for forgery and capacity for financial jugglery persuaded the four banks to grant him loans and credit facilities worth about $159 million. Before his four-year dream run ended, he had withdrawn $117.1 million. Of this, only $34.8 million has been recovered. The authorities estimate that he lost a stupendous $62 million feeding his gambling habit.

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