By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
An ex-Cabinet minister is acting as the lead Bahamian attorney for the proposed Baha Mar buyer, Tribune Business can reveal, with the approval process for its acquisition said to be moving rapidly through the highest levels of Government.
Multiple legal sources have confirmed that Ryan Pinder, who resigned less than two years ago as the Christie Cabinet’s minister of financial services, is leading Graham, Thompson & Co’s legal representation of Chow Tai Fook Enterprises (CTFE).
Mr Pinder resigned in late 2014 to take a lucrative post with expanding Lyford Cay-based Deltec Bank & Trust, before joining Graham, Thompson & Co as a partner.
He is now on the opposite side of the negotiating table as his Hong Kong-based conglomerate client seeks to obtain the necessary government permits and approvals to consummate its acquisition of the $3.5 billion Baha Mar project.
Mr Pinder’s role and involvement came to light after Tribune Business was informed about a “major” meeting on Baha Mar, involving all key stakeholders and their Bahamian advisers, that took place at the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday.
Sources with knowledge of developments said CTFE, and representatives of the China Export-Import Bank and China Construction America (CCA), promised Mr Christie they would try to make 700 rooms at Baha Mar available for March - in time for the peak 2016-2017 winter tourism season.
“It was a meeting with the Prime Minister and representatives of the CTFE people, and they were saying they were going to try and have 700 rooms available by March,” one source, speaking on condition of anonymity, “and to reassure on how they’re moving forward.”
CTFE previously told Tribune Business it would concentrate on opening the Baha Mar casino and casino hotel, plus the Hyatt-branded convention hotel and convention centre, a strategy in line with the Government’s thinking and desires.
The Christie administration, facing a general election by May 2017, is extremely keen for at least part of Baha Mar to be operational by then, so it can attempt to justify its strategy of opposing - and helping to remove - original developer Sarkis Izmirlian as successful.
Another highly-placed source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed Monday’s high-level meeting, but suggested it had more to do with the Government approvals that CTFE requires to complete its purchase.
“I understand it was to deal with the aspects of the final National Economic Council (Cabinet) approval,” the source said, suggesting that the Baha Mar purchase was moving rapidly through the Government’s permitting processes.
“It might have moved swiftly,” they added. “It might have already been done. Everybody would be aware that it’s in the national interest for this thing [Baha Mar] to open.
“It’s a question of all the security checks and due diligence they would have to do. It’s election time, so none of this is surprising to me.”
One contact, though, questioned how the CTFE approvals process could be moving so rapidly when Obie Wilchcombe, minister of tourism with responsibility for gaming, had confirmed the Gaming Board had only received the Hong Kong-based conglomerate’s proposals/application within the last week.
CTFE’s suitability to become Baha Mar’s owner has already aroused concerns locally. These seem to be based on a May 18, 2009, report by the US state of New Jersey’s gaming enforcement division, dealing with a proposed Macau casino joint venture between MGM Mirage and Stanley Ho’s daughter, Pansy.
As disclosed by Tribune Business, that report focused on concerns that Macau’s VIP gaming rooms were vulnerable to exploitation by Chinese/Asian crime gangs known as Triads.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, a former Baha Mar director and key ally of Mr Izmirlian, sought to link CTFE’s owners, the Cheng family, and its publicly traded subsidiary, New World Development, to these activities via their investment in Mr Ho’s STDM and SJM companies.
However, while the New Jersey regulator’s report made adverse findings against Mr Ho, describing him as “unsuitable”, no such conclusions were reached about the Cheng family or their companies.
Yet CTFE, a privately-owned Hong Kong conglomerate controlled by the family of the late billionaire, Cheng Yu Tung, moved with remarkable haste to effectively disassociate themselves from Mr Ho despite maintaining an equity investment in STDM.
“The Cheng Family is an investor in Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau (STDM), which owns the gaming subsidiary, SJM Holdings Ltd (SJM),” CTFE said previously in response to Tribune Business questions.
“In addition, the Cheng family’s role in the Macau casino is strictly as an investor, with no involvement in day-to-day management of the casino or oversight of the gaming industry in Macau.
“As a company, we are committed to integrity and good governance in all of our business operations worldwide. There will be no affiliation on this project with STDM or SJM.”
CTFE also suggested its gaming reputation was in ‘good standing’ with regulators throughout the world, as the $3 billion Queen’s Wharf consortium, of which it is part, had just been approved for a casino licence by Australian regulators.
But Branville McCartney, the Democratic National Alliance’s (DNA) leader, argued that CTFE would not be granted a casino licence if the Gaming Board “did proper due diligence”.
I will tell you that if the Gaming Board were to do their proper due diligence, the casino licence would not be granted,” Mr McCartney told Tribune Business previously of CTFE. “They would be hard pressed to obtain a casino licence.
“From what I’ve seen, and from what I’ve determined, they don’t qualify because of their past dealings. You cannot tell me that this government doesn’t know that; they must know it.”