Illegal Play Whe operators robbing State of billions

Date: 
Friday, July 10, 2020 - 20:00

With energy prices remaining low, the Government has no choice but to rely on an efficient tax system to generate funds, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said on July 4.

He said while the Government has “highways to be built, roads to be built,” the country is being short changed as more than 40 per cent of expected tax earnings are not being collected. “The law-abiding salary-earning person pays taxes upfront but there are other people in the country who benefit far more than you who are getting away through foul means by not paying their taxes,” the PM said.

For decades, an illegal gambling operation mimicking Play Whe has robbed the country of millions in potential tax earnings.

Despite this, upwards of 300 booths operated by mainly Chinese nationals as well as T&T nationals continue to flourish across the country with impunity. In most instances, these booths do not conceal what is taking place within them. Instead, they conduct business in the open.

Plastered on their walls are offerings of odds that the legal NLCB booths cannot compete with. NLCB booths offer $26 for every dollar on a winning bet, the illegal operators offer a minimum of $34. With the offer of better odds, and when compared to the amount made by legal NLCB operators, each illegal booth can rake in more than $10,000 a day, untaxed.

According to a source at the National Lotteries Control Board, the illegal game is worth more than $1.3 billion per year.

President of the Electronic Lotto Agents Association of T&T Alan Campbell suggested that figure is conservative, putting the value at more than $3 billion. To put this figure into context, that estimated value is greater than the 2019-2020 budget allocation for the following ministries: Public Utilities ($3.047 billion), Works and Transport($2.956 billion), Housing ($1.007 billion), Agriculture ($0.708 billion) and Rural Development and Local Government ($2.469 billion).

It also dwarfs Tobago’s entire allocation of $2.469 billion, if the estimate is accurate.

Given the economic impact of COVID-19 and complaints by legitimate NLCB booth operators who are losing income, the NLCB and T&T Police Service are reportedly taking steps to crack down on the industry. But why is it taking so long?

Asked to describe those behind the industry, an NLCB source used the following descriptions: “Big and dangerous; Not small man; Syndicate and Organised; Deep Pockets.”

According to numerous sources, it is a well-known Chinese operation that profits most. However, we are also reliably informed that there is one T&T national who owns as many as 100 of the illegal booths.

The 1,120 legal booths in T&T, run by the NLCB, operate from 6 am to 7 pm some days and 6 am to 8.30 pm on other days.

Too Easy to Play

Spanning the length and breadth of the country, there are more than 300 illegal booths.

Dividing an estimated value of the entire industry, approximately $3 billion by 300 outlets, it works out to an astonishing value of close to $11,000,000 each.

Located in Port-of-Spain, an illegal booth operates night and day. The illegal booth is located metres away from a police station, about a seven-minute walk.

On its open door, a large sign on a fluorescent piece of bristol board advertised a return of $34 for every winning $1, and there’s even MegaBall. The MegaBall offered a return of $70 to the $1.

In Port-of-Spain, next to a Chinese grocery, the booth is no bigger than eight-feet-by-eight-feet in dimension.

Attempting to see how easy it is to play, I walked inside.

Behind the counter were two Venezuelan nationals–their English far from the best.

In the small room they are in, located behind what appears to be bullet-proof glass, I spotted computers and other elaborate pieces of equipment.

The computer, from the looks of it, was the apparatus used to record and tabulate bets.

Two customers stood before me in the line. It was clear this was part of their routine. They were no strangers to playing.

A man who walked in, unsure of what the process to play is like, asked one of the customers, “Boss, where did you get that form from?”

“Right over the road. Just go to that shop over there and ask them for a form,” he replied.

He was even generous enough to point in the direction of a Chinese store on the opposite side of the road.

From my observation, the process was deliberately muddy. I followed.

Unable to secure a form, the man asked the two clerks for a form, but they declined.

My second attempt to see someone play would be far simpler.

Located in the East, another of the illegal booths can be found metres away from a police station. That’s about a one-minute walk.

Like the first booth, this one is also located next to a Chinese grocery.

Looking inside there was a computer, phone and a seat, only one man was there. With just a hole in the wall, there’s room to do little else than call a bet on the outside.

On the exterior of the wall was a chart showing recent results in a colourful text. There was also a poster showing the odds–$34 for each winning $1 bet. $70 for MegaBall.

Around two minutes later, a clerk finally showed up.

“What your bet?” asks a Chinese man.

The man says, “$5 on 20; $5 on 25.

Within seconds, they exchanged the money and he got a ticket.

Just like that, in that simple process, they allegedly defrauded the Government of taxes by bypassing the NLCB.

Despite the simplicity of playing, and despite the proximity of the booths to institutions responsible to uphold the law, this happens hundreds of times every day at booths nationwide.

With the illegal industry continuing to go unchecked, its profits have surpassed the NLCB’s Play Whe earnings, according to Campbell.

However, with estimates of the legal game being worth as much as $3 billion a year, it matches NLCB’s total revenue for 2018.

In 2019 the company’s chairman Eustance Nancis reported earnings of $3 billion for 2018.

“There are people in high standings who are supporting the illegal operators. They have something to gain from it, and it’s not only Chinese people involved as illegal operators, but there’s also a local with more than 100 illegal booths,” Campbell said.

“It is money laundering in a big, big way. They are sending the money out of the country.”

Lotto Agents: It’s Time to Act

Taking notice of the growing threat that these illegal booths posed to their livelihoods, in September 2011 Lotto agents came together to form the Electronic Lotto Agents Association of T&T.

Despite the powerful players involved, the association’s president Alan Campbell has never shied away from taking on the illegal industry.

Over the years, he said that he and the association had discussions with three police commissioners about the issue–former acting Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs, Acting Commissioner Stephen Williams, as well as current Commissioner Gary Griffith.

According to Campbell, one commissioner said he wasn’t aware of the issue, while the other said he didn’t have sufficient police officers to monitor the situation.

After writing to Commissioner Griffith last year, they were told by an acting deputy commissioner of police that a special squad was going to be formed to get something done finally.

That is yet to materialise.

Money laundering is a crime

*According to Section 45 of the Proceeds of Crime Act, a person who knows or has reasonable grounds to suspect that property is criminal property and who engages directly or indirectly, in a transaction that involves that criminal property; or receives, possesses, conceals, disposes of, disguises, transfers, brings into, or sends out of Trinidad and Tobago, that criminal property; or converts, transfers or removes from Trinidad and Tobago that criminal property, commits an offence of money laundering.

*Criminal property is any property derived from criminal conduct.

*A person who commits an offence under Section 45 is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $25,000,000 and imprisonment for 15 years.

*On conviction on indictment, the person is liable to a fine of $50,000,000 and imprisonment for 30 years.

During its five years in office, the Government has stated numerous times that it is going after people and organisations guilty of money laundering.

Earlier this year, during the parliamentary debate on the Gambling, Gaming and Betting Bill 2016, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi cited reports from the International Monetary Fund which suggested there was poor regulation of the gambling industry in T&T.

The AG called for measures to ensure that police could investigate the institutions properly, as there was a lot of room for unregulated casinos to benefit from money laundering.

“…the IMF says T&T is the only country in the world with an economy of our size to have an unsupervised regulatory environment,” he said.

Al-Rawi, speaking in February, claimed as a result of recent laws aimed at tackling money laundering, more than $36.8 million in cash was seized, with more than 17 cases before the courts.

In May of this year, the Government attempted to pass the Gambling (Gaming and Betting) Control Bill, claiming it was to strengthen regulations in the industry.

The Opposition, however, citing issues with aspects of the bill, abstained and the bill was not passed in the form intended.

Operating with impunity

Without regulation, the level of impunity of the illegal Play Whe operations is now to such a degree that they are operating as openly as any legitimised business, according to Campbell.

He said the illegal booths are even seeking guidance from authorities to ensure COVID-19 public health precautions are in place.

They are also running a foreign exchange black market, he added.

“If you go with US$3, you get about TT$30 worth of bet. So, they are buying the US that way,” the Electronic Lotto Agents Association president said.

Campbell believed that those in authority are scared to look into the ring because of the power of those involved.

Campbell claimed that some years ago an NLCB official “told us at a meeting that there’s an organisation (name called) involved. He said, ‘my life is worth something.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to get mixed up with them.'”

As a lotto agent in east Trinidad, Keisha, whose name was changed because she was concerned about her safety, said with the onset of COVID-19, she has lost 50 per cent of her earnings. That additional loss is, of course, in conjunction with the cuts in her revenue caused by the illegal booth within walking distance from her.

Unlike those operators, she pays tax.

And, as a result of these losses, she had to cut her employee hours.

“It sends my blood pressure up. I called 800-TIPS, and I called the police station to report it,” she said.

“They are doing it so boldface. All the money they are making, they are not keeping it here in T&T, they are sending it back. And our government is not even concerned.”

One agent said he too has called the NLCB and Police Service on numerous occasions to report the operations. He also claimed the reports never yielded any results.

“It’s bigger than the NLCB. They are powerless to do anything,” he said.

According to Campbell, the Gambling and Betting Act must be amended to tackle the illegal Play Whe operation.

Despite the large sums of money involved and, by extension, the potential tax earnings lost by the State, under the current act, guilty parties are only liable on summary conviction to a fine of $3,000 or imprisonment for 12 months.

Hardly daunting, considering illegal booths can generate upwards of three times the fine per day, untaxed.

Questions sent to police

Guardian Media sent questions on Thursday to the Police Service’s Communications Department. The questions sought to find out if the TTPS was currently investigating illegal Play Whe and whether the service was aware of claims of wrongdoing by officers. The department acknowledged receipt of the email on Friday and promised to respond. There was no response up to late yesterday.

The following historical account was written by sociologist and UWI Research Fellow, Dr Roy McCree. It also contains information based on research by other researchers. It was edited by Guardian Media.

Started by the Government in 1994, Play Whe has its roots in the Chinese game of Whe Whe, which was introduced to T&T in the 19th century.

While the game has always been known as Whe Whe, several academic researchers have suggested that its original name may have been Marchong, Chinapoo and Pakka Kin.

It was originally spelt as Whe Whe in French fashion. This could be explained by the fact that at the time of Chinese migration to the island, French was the dominant language. In particular, a French creole variant, known as patois, was spoken among the black working class.

However, over time, as the use of the language waned on the island, the word was spelt without the written French accents although the intonation remained.

The original game had several major characteristics related to its numerical character, including their symbols, how numbers are chosen and its organisation.

The game is still based on the numbers from 1 to 36, known as marks. Each mark may represent a particular human, non-human or inanimate symbol, which includes men, women, animals, reptiles, even insects and body parts.

Additionally, each mark had a partner and even spirit which were in effect, other marks.

Several methods were used by punters or players to choose a particular mark. These included line or numerical charts, body charts–still seen at official Play Whe outlets; dreams, hunches and particular events which may suggest the selection of more than one possible mark.

After the selection of the marks, they were then given to the person who was responsible for collecting the bets, or pot as it was then called, selecting the winning mark and paying out to those who won.

This person was known as the banker or Whe Whe banker, who would first record the chosen mark on a piece of paper which was called a ticket.

In the 20th century, this approach was changed as punters were allowed to write down the pots themselves on what was now called lists. These lists also recorded the total amount betted, while using a special code to identify the better, to protect him or her against possible police arrest since the game was illegal.

The selection of the mark was supposed to be a secret process and its selection was referred to as the bussing of the mark. This phrase has taken on other connotations in our society, which are not related to the game.

The winning mark was revealed to punters on a roll of paper attached to a string suspended from either a roof or tree. One of the important rules in the selection of marks was that a mark which was chosen at the first draw, could not be replayed on the second draw. This was called a dead mark.

In the earlies, the odds on betting were 30 cents to one cent but was changed over time to $30 to $1. The size of the odds, however, may have varied from banker to banker depending on how much money or bank they had.

Bankers were popular in communities, as they were known to assist with expenses related to sickness, funerals and even the celebration of Christmas.

The game was usually played twice per day and seven days per week, with the first draw taking place around midday and the second around 4 pm.

It was played at some clandestine location called a Whe Whe turf, to avoid the police whose raids are integral to the game’s history.

Another important characteristic of the early game was the important role played by certain individuals variously called touts, travelling agents, markers and couriers.

Serving as intermediaries or middlemen between the punters and the banker, they relayed bets on behalf of punters, who feared being caught by the police, to the banker, collected their winnings, and even helped them to interpret dreams or events and select marks.

Touts acted as veritable consultants and may have pioneered the consultancy business in this country.

From its beginnings, however, the game was condemned by the social elites of the day, the media and eventually criminalised through the passage of prohibitive legislation in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the early moral outrage against the game in the late 19th century, it was variously described as a monster evil and systematic roguery that was affecting the industriousness and family life of the lower classes in particular.

The Trinidad Chronicle of February 18, 1882, stated, “The abominable Whe Whe–a Chinese form of gambling…is in full operation for many weeks in the Chinese quarter of Port-of-Spain (we mean Upper Prince Street), working a serious amount of demoralisation amongst a class of people always open to temptation and already deeply sunk in… dangerous and corrupt ways.”

However, as with cockfighting and other forms of gambling, participation in the game was not restricted to the lower classes and also included elite elements.

The San Fernando Gazette of January 22, 1881, reported, “The evil and seductive influences of this monster trade in gambling affects all grades of society alike, is sufficiently established by the number of all classes who, at every hour of the day, throng these demoralising agencies to purchase tickets.”

Much like participation in Play Whe today, therefore, participation in Whe Whe was a multi-class phenomenon.

However, despite the condemnation, the prohibitive legislation, the many police raids and arrests, the game persisted despite this crackdown.

Fast forward to 1994 when Play Whe was introduced under the National Lotteries Control Board, many felt that it marked the end of the game’s criminalisation and secrecy. However, this didn’t prove to be the case.

The State, therefore, has been guilty of doublespeak and doublethink.

While it is okay to take part in Play Whe, it remains illegal to take part in Whe Whe, despite the former being borrowed hook, line and sinker from the latter.

Unfortunately, due to the absence of social research, it is impossible to know the extent to which the original game has been impacted by the state-sanctioned Play Whe, although grapevine data suggests that it still exists.

Besides, it is also impossible to know how Play Whe has impacted the society based on recent data, although it is well known that it provides a significant revenue stream to both the Government as well as the agents of the NLCB through the commissions they receive.