This intriguing woman named Laura Choi--petite with a practical haircut, dressed demurely in a place of pleasure--intertwines her arm with yours and glides you across the casino's marble floor. You feel a gentle squeeze.
This is her world. It is far removed from the annoying, clanging $1 slot machines, the sunburned clots of tourists playing $10-a-hand blackjack, the rubes in ball caps exploding into cheers at the craps tables. Choi's realm is the baccarat lounge, where the dealers don tuxes and access is VIP-only.
You can watch through the beveled glass as the players--dark-suited Asian businessmen, mainly--chain-smoke and impassively wager their fortunes. Minimum bet: $100 a hand. But the typical high roller--known in the trade as a "whale"--lays down several thousand dollars each time.
Baccarat carries a certain allure--James Bond and all that--but it's a game in which the gambler has very little control. Play is swift, and addictive. Some Asian gamblers think they can detect patterns, but dealers say that's an illusion. There are no patterns. Except this one: The casino, in the end, wins.
"My best customer, they bet $100,000 a hand," Choi explains. "One of my customer went through 7 million dollar in three days."
Her English isn't polished, but her delivery is matter-of-fact. Everything about the Korean-born Choi suggests calculation and efficiency. Her job here for two decades was to separate gamblers from their money. She did it well--as a baccarat dealer at Caesars Palace, then as an international marketing executive at the Mirage Casino-Hotel. Choi, 44, knows how to ingratiate herself: Whenever your beer glass runs low, she quickly tilts the Asahi bottle to fill it. You've never tried this noodle delicacy? She quickly orders you a bowl.
Choi's specialty was South Korean whales. In 1992, the Mirage hired her to fish for CEOs, industrialists, entertainers and media magnates; she lured them with free air fare and opulent hotel rooms. She pampered them around the clock. Gambling is illegal in Korea, considered immoral, but the executives could shed their inhibitions during three- and four-day Vegas sprees.
"They don't eat much, they don't sleep much, they don't even drink," Choi says of her clients. They just played baccarat, obsessively.
Out of cash? No problem. The Mirage was delighted to extend the Koreans credit lines of up to a million dollars.
That practice ultimately became a huge problem. Today Choi is an outcast here, notorious for her involvement in an international scandal. She's paranoid, worried about being followed, careful about where to meet for an interview. She gets especially unnerved around casinos run by Mirage Resorts Inc., the company headed by Steve Wynn, her ex-boss and the most powerful man in Las Vegas.
Perhaps she has good reason to be anxious: Her work for Mirage landed her in a Korean jail for 79 days, which led to a mental breakdown. It also provoked state and federal investigations here. And it led to a lawsuit that puts Choi in the middle of a battle between two moguls whose egos glow like neon: Wynn and his East Coast arch-rival, Donald Trump. After Choi got out of jail, private eyes tried to recruit her into Trump's casino empire.
Forget baccarat's veneer of sophistication; the Choi matter reveals the cutthroat competition below the surface. Baccarat revenues are closely tracked on Wall Street; they can help a casino maintain its profit margin. In the new Las Vegas, dominated by corporate showmen, Choi was coveted for her ability to generate revenues. But there was a shadowy side to her job, a touch of the old Vegas, which got her into all this trouble.
Choi was a debt collector--responsible for tracking down the whales in Korea and getting them to make good on their outstanding "markers." Their collective debts ran into the millions. Standing 5 feet 3, Choi obviously didn't work in the tradition of burly leg-breakers and kneecappers. She employed some unusual, inventive methods. Illegal methods, as it turned out.
About two years ago, Korean authorities convicted Choi of violating that country's strict currency laws by collecting six-figure debts that several gamblers owed to the Mirage. (Korean citizens are banned from sending more than $10,000 abroad without government permission--and they aren't about to get permission to settle gambling debts.) But what began with a violation of arcane foreign-exchange laws has since mutated into a high-stakes image problem for Mirage, which prides itself on corporate cleanliness.
Choi ended up the star witness in probes of Mirage collection practices by the Las Vegas police, the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service and the Nevada Gaming Control Board. She turned over a pile of company documents to investigators, opening a window into the murky financial arrangements that whales maintain with casinos here.
Last year state gaming regulators accused Mirage executives of sanctioning her "illegal conduct" in Korea and violating U.S. regulations that govern currency transactions; the company denied it and quickly paid a $350,000 fine to settle the matter. It did not contest allegations that the Mirage's chief counsel, Bruce Aguilera, lied to a gaming board agent investigating the Choi case. (Aguilera denied it.)
At the time, Wynn was poised to open the $1.6 billion Bellagio resort and casino, his crowning achievement. The company line became, in essence: It's all Laura Choi's fault. The Mirage branded her a rogue employee, and fired her.
"They throw me out like a rug!" she fumes. "They think they can do anything they want."
A few months ago, Wynn sued Choi for alleged theft of more than half a million dollars. She promptly countersued for wrongful termination. Citing lawsuits and an ongoing federal investigation--the nature of which officials will not disclose--few participants will talk for the record. But Madame Choi, hoping to settle a score, is happy to tell her tale.
It is serpentine, and strange. And of course like everything else here, it's all wrapped up in money.
She was in Room 2316 of Seoul's Intercontinental Hotel, writing a customer a receipt, when the knock came. Waiting outside were half a dozen plainclothes officers. "We're from the prosecutor's office," they barked. "We need your cooperation."
They searched her room, even looked inside the pillows, confiscated her money--a few days into a two-week trip and she'd already collected $90,000 in traveler's checks. They ordered her to open the room safe, and she winced when they discovered her list: 40 or so big-time gamblers.
Choi says she was interrogated for 36 hours straight. She confessed that she was in Seoul to pick up gambling markers--as she had done several times before, she says, with no hassles at all.
But this time--it was July 1997--she arrived in the midst of a government campaign against citizens who drained the national economy through excessive spending overseas. Gamblers in particular were singled out for their wanton, unpatriotic pursuits.
Choi knew the rules. Shortly before leaving Vegas, she'd attended a meeting with her boss, Al Faccinto Jr., and the chief counsel, Aguilera, where the Korean crackdown was discussed. Choi says Faccinto told her to "be careful." But as a U.S. passport holder and employee of an American corporation, she thought she'd be "protected." Her lawsuit contends that she would have been fired if she refused to go collect.
On earlier trips, Choi relied on both simple and complex schemes to get the money back to Vegas. Once, she says, a client's underling walked onto an airplane carrying $500,000 in U.S. traveler's checks and passed them to Choi. Other times she says she would make deposits in friends' bank accounts, or her own, for later payment to the Mirage. She also says she would arrange for a Korean import-export business with a U.S. office to wire money overseas, and later a check would be cut to the Mirage. Korean prosecutors said that she disguised the money as payments for textile goods.
How much money did Choi move? She can only estimate it was in the millions. She opens a black nylon satchel that she carries with her everywhere. It contains her cache of internal Mirage documents. "Evidence," she says.
One computer printout shows a South Korean media mogul who owed $3.1 million in markers. Here's a store owner who lost $987,600 during a four-night baccarat run. Spreadsheet calculations include such items as average bet ($18,322) and time played (33 hours 33 minutes).
A report in the Korea Herald, quoting prosecutors, said of the Choi case: "The amount of illegally diverted foreign currency reached 1.35 billion won," some $15 million.
Mirage officials say they had no idea this kind of thing was happening. Attorney Frank A. Schreck denies that the casino countenanced crime: "The fact that [the Mirage] extended credit to Koreans doesn't mean that anyone was expecting Korean currency laws to be violated."
Gaming board documents say that Choi and her colleague, Macao Lee, were dispatched on several "collection and promotion" trips to South Korea. According to the complaint, Lee used money transfer agents "to circumvent South Korean law" and taught Choi to do the same. In the settlement, Mirage attorneys did not dispute Lee's "foreign illegal acts." He still works for the company.
Schreck says everything that looks suspicious can be explained.
It all depends on what the meaning of the word "collect" is.
Schreck, a former gaming official who represents several casino companies here, defends the Mirage position over a casual lunch at Cafe Bellagio, where tourists can play keno at their table while waiting to view the $300 million art collection next door. ("Now appearing--Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso," reads a billboard in front of the hotel.) He says Mirage employees were forcefully and repeatedly warned never to actually collect money in Korea. Instead, he says, "collect" meant to arrange collection for a later date, legally, in America or in other countries.
According to Schreck, this was a common practice among Vegas casinos. Most of the Korean gamblers had legal avenues for the remittance of their debts--through businesses abroad, either their own or those of relatives or associates, he says. What about whales with no legal means?
"There are all kinds of ways, millions of ways" to pay, he insists.
Steve Wynn and his top executives would never tolerate lawbreaking, Schreck says. He would quickly "eradicate" it. "If evidence showed the top guy in the Bellagio knew what was going on, he would be terminated."
So why did that not apply to Lee?
"Macao Lee has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, under oath, before the gaming board, on several occasions," Schreck says. To get the complaint "behind us," he adds, the Mirage did not dispute the charges against Lee.
Of Laura Choi, he says: "She's a criminal; she's the one who was arrested. . . . It wasn't anything but an employee out of control."
After her arrest, Choi still felt loyal to the Mirage. "I try to cover them as much as I can," she recalls. She runs her fingers nervously through her bangs. "I wanted to protect the Mirage first of all. Very worried about the Mirage. Then, I worry about my customers. I'm sure they're gonna get big trouble. They start coming in. I see their faces--" At the memory, her mouth arcs in a guilty frown.
Prominent Korean citizens were rounded up, betrayed by Choi's list. These were her friends; they trusted her. Now she felt their humiliation.
She was given a smelly blanket and put in a cell that slept 12 women, including, she later learned, a murder suspect. "Never lights off. Always lights on. Food--terrible."
Choi grew up in poverty in Korea, part of a family of six sharing one room. She worked as a house cleaner before she struck out for America in 1977. As the market for Asian gamblers grew, her ethnic background made her a valued employee in Vegas.
"They don't care about my English," she says. "They hired me because I speaks Korean."
At the Mirage she was guaranteed $80,000 a year, but typically made $100,000 or more with bonuses. She was accustomed to traveling first-class; her expense account for the July 1997 trip was $7,500 a week. Now she was sleeping fitfully on a wooden floor, eating greasy kimchi soup and showering once a week.
During the weeks in jail she fretted about her family back in Vegas; her mother, nearing 80, was taking care of her teenage son. Choi's older brother, disabled by a stroke, also was living in her modest three-bedroom home.
Choi says she developed a thyroid problem and heart condition. Finally, in October, a judge convicted her and gave her a two-year suspended sentence. She was fined about $534,000. (The fine is being appealed.)
A doctor in Korea diagnosed her as having "adaptation disorder," with symptoms including insomnia, depression and "irritation," according to medical records. He prescribed sedatives. Choi says: "My nerves not normal."
But, still, she didn't blame the Mirage. She wrote a letter to Chairman and CEO Steve Wynn. "I'm grateful for all that you've done for me," she told him. "I hoped to be as good of a leader as you." She described her devotion to her job, taking Asian clients to play golf in the early morning and escorting them to dinner late at night. "I felt proud to work as Mirage's Laura."
She closed pensively:
"Chairman, I feel ashamed to talk about this with you, but how did I come to this situation. . . . I was just doing my job when this happened. . . . All the hard work I've done fell apart. I have a lot more to talk about and I'll talk when I return to the company."
She did talk--and talk--to various investigators. But never to Steve Wynn.
The Secret Tape
The cops were waiting when her plane landed in Los Angeles. Investigators from the Vegas police intelligence unit and agents from the state gaming board told her the Mirage's position: She'd acted alone.
Choi insisted that Mirage higher-ups knew exactly what she'd been doing. The detectives gave her a tape recorder and instructions: Secretly tape any conversations with Mirage officials.
From an airport pay phone that morning, Choi says, she placed a call to the Mirage's Aguilera and told him she could see him the next day: Friday, Jan. 30, 1998. She made the call in earshot of a detective.
Friday morning, the cops tailed her to the Strip and waited outside the Mirage. She went in to find Aguilera around 9:30. The tape recorder was running in her handbag. A partial transcript was later quoted at a hearing of the Gaming Control Board.
Aguilera, expressing surprise, tells Choi: "You were supposed to call me this morning. I've got a meeting now." Then he asks his secretary, "What time do I see Laura this afternoon?"
It seems an innocent enough exchange. But at this point, everything devolves into a hairsplitting legal dispute, right down to the words on the tape.
Wynn vs. Trump
"If you wanna make money in a casino, own one."
--Steve Wynn, quoted in the Financial Times, 1992.
The "standard" room at Bellagio is listed at $359 a night, but it's been discounted by more than 200 bucks for the slow summer season. It's a classy joint: There's a triple-sheeted, Elvis-size bed, a bathroom encrusted with Italian marble, an awesome view of the lake. And also of Paris.
Not a real lake, but 20 million gallons of precious water pumped into a block-long pool on the Strip. Not the real Paris, of course, but a sham Eiffel Tower plopped in front of a imitation French hotel. A few blocks away sits a phony Piazza San Marco, part of the $1.5 billion Venetian hotel-casino.
This is the new Las Vegas envisioned and ardently promoted by Stephen A. Wynn, 57, a former Anne Arundel County bingo parlor operator. He is credited with repositioning Sin City as a Disneyesque vacation "experience" for families. Vegas has come to resemble an overblown Epcot, except the talent is topless and the new mayor, a lawyer, made his name defending mobsters.
Wynn's flagship property, the Mirage, with its dolphin display, performing white tigers and flame-spewing volcano, launched the casino-tainment movement a decade ago. He is proud of his role in buffing the city's image. Amid great hoopla he demolished the Dunes--a hotel emblematic of the old, mobbed-up Las Vegas--to make way for Bellagio, which he calls "the greatest hotel ever built in any century."
Wynn was quoted on the new Vegas morality in a 1995 interview with Casino Executive magazine: "This business is the most regulated in the country. . . . You survive this process because you run your life a certain way. You can't be a crook and you can't be a corporate misuser of funds and you can't be a sexual harasser and you can't be a skimmer and you can't be an organized crime associate. You can't do those things. You get caught immediately."
The Post's request for an interview with Wynn about Choi's activities was referred to his libel attorney, who advised his client not to talk.
Wynn's lawsuit against Laura Choi calls her a liar and a thief. He claims she embezzled more than $500,000 from the Mirage--allegedly by collecting a debt and never turning it over to the casino. The suit also says she schemed with Donald Trump and two of his private eyes to steal highly confidential trade secrets from Mirage. Namely, a list of whales.
Wynn's only public comment on the case has been as exaggerated as the casinos he erects here: "What will be revealed will demonstrate the most outrageous misconduct, the most flagrant violations of law and decent behavior in the history of the resort hotel industry."
In her countersuit, Choi says Mirage executives not only supported her criminal activities in Korea but wanted her to lie to the state gaming board to cover everything up. She denies stealing money from the Mirage or providing a high-roller list to Trump.
The two casino kingpins have been feuding since the 1980s. They appear to hate each other.
"A dummy," Wynn has called Trump. "Desperate," said Trump of his foe.
The Donald acquired the Taj Mahal casino on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in part to lure whales to the more plebeian resort. In recent years Wynn has been trying to regain a foothold in Trump's fiefdom by building a posh casino called Le Jardin on the site of a former Atlantic City municipal dump. He blames Trump for blocking the progress of the project every step of the way.
Trump's answer to the lawsuit denies any conspiracy with Choi or others. The usually voluble developer also isn't granting interviews, but his attorneys evidently hope to use the Korean matter to embarrass Wynn.
Says Trump counsel Jay Goldberg: "What's really involved--if what Laura Choi says is true--are countless criminal acts. If these things are proven, if anybody above Choi was involved, that person ought to be in jail. If this were someone whose name ended in a vowel, he'd be doing 10 years."
Using documents supplied by Choi, investigators' testimony and the tapes, the gaming board filed a blistering 12-count complaint detailing "blatant collection activities and deliberate efforts to circumvent South Korean law." It said this "illegal conduct" had "full knowledge and support of Mirage executives." It also alleged various U.S. customs violations--including a 1995 episode when top Mirage officials divided cash among themselves on a trip back from South Korea to evade currency reporting requirements in the United States.
The complaint, which carried a potential fine of $2.1 million, did not name Wynn but surely got his attention. It carried the most serious penalty possible: revocation of the Mirage's gaming license.
The license for Bellagio itself was also pending. It was mid-August 1998--just two months before the resort was scheduled to open. The timing couldn't be worse. It was the most hyped building project in Las Vegas history, a 7-million-square-foot, 3,000-room monument to over-the-top opulence.
Nearly 10,000 local jobs were on the line. Projected Bellagio gambling revenues: $550 million a year. It boasted the Strip's first $1,000-per-pull slot machines.
The gaming board complaint threatened more than Mirage's image; it put the career of Bruce Allen Aguilera at risk. The lawyer, who prided himself on an unblemished 20-year tenure in the casino business, was slated to become a top officer of Bellagio and needed the board's approval to assume his new job as secretary-treasurer.
At issue was whether Aguilera lied to board agent Raelene Palmer. Palmer testified that she called Aguilera shortly after he saw Choi at the Mirage. The agent says she asked the lawyer if he knew whether Choi was back in town and he said no, he hadn't heard from her.
But Aguilera testified that Palmer had never asked him that question, that they didn't discuss Choi's whereabouts at all.
The Mirage settled the gaming board's complaint in three days, avoiding lengthy disciplinary hearings. It said mistakes were made; it accepted a measure of corporate responsibility for the activities of Choi and others involved with Korean collections. It agreed to adopt a policy that would "ensure compliance with all U.S. Customs laws and the foreign customs laws."
It neither admitted nor denied the charge that Aguilera lied, but conceded that "clear and convincing evidence [against him] likely exists," and the board's case was too strong to contest.
The Bellagio opened right on time; the "splendid project," in the words of gaming board chairman Bill Bible, was unanimously approved, 3 to 0. The board later approved Aguilera's licensing as secretary-treasurer on a 2-to-1 vote.
The Korean matter seemed over, little more than a distraction, but it wasn't going to end there. The Choi tapes were turned over to the FBI.
As a single woman with no job, a teenage son and elderly mother to support, Choi fears that luck has deserted her. Despite her cooperation, she is still the focus of an ongoing federal investigation, which could result in criminal charges.
She worries she'll never work in Vegas again. If the Korean scandal weren't enough, she's also been branded as a betrayer. She flirted with going over to the Other Side--working for Donald Trump.
When Choi was still recovering from her imprisonment in Korea, a man named Curt Rodriguez tracked her down and expressed a great interest in the Korean gambling market. He seemed very nervous. Choi says she thought he was working for the FBI.
She recalls helping him arrange meetings with her high-roller clients in a public area at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. She says they met four or five times before he revealed his real interest: He was working for Trump.
Louis C. Rodriguez Jr. is a former U.S. Customs agent who went into business for himself as a private investigator. By March 1998, Rodriguez had developed a list of more than 60 high-end Korean gamblers. He wrote a memo titled "Operation Snake Eyes," marked it "Strictly Confidential" and faxed the list to another private eye, William Kish, who worked with Trump's lawyers. On the fax cover, Rodriguez typed: "Upon receipt, please enclose in sealed envelope."
In June 1998, Choi says, she flew with Rodriguez from Vegas to Atlantic City for a meeting with Trump executives at the Trump Taj Mahal, the garish Boardwalk casino that boasted high-roller suites and a "Dragon Room" geared to Asian gamblers.
Choi says she was offered a job, but couldn't consider it until the gaming board investigation was over.
All these meetings led to another complication for Choi's life: Steve Wynn's lawsuit claims that Kish, Choi, Rodriguez and others took part in Trump's scheme to steal trade secrets from the Mirage. (Rodriguez declined comment, and Kish did not return The Post's phone calls.)
It's all very John Grisham, with that one final twist: The mysterious Rodriguez has switched sides, according to a motion filed in late June by Trump's lawyers. They claim the private investigator is now working for the Mirage as part of a "Faustian pact." As evidence it cites a recent affidavit filed by Rodriguez notarized by a secretary in the offices of Frank Schreck, the Mirage attorney.
Asked whom Rodriguez is working for, Schreck says, "I don't know. . . . It could be anybody. It could be everybody."
All this intrigue has shaken her, Choi says. She no longer trusts people. She's been betrayed too often. "Please do your best for me," she begs a reporter.
Is she really the naive innocent caught in a struggle between titans? Or is she the sly operative portrayed by her former employer, someone with her own designs on all that cash flowing across oceans?
There is a Korean expression that might describe the second possibility: kot baem. It translates as "flowered snake." Applied to a woman, it means gold-digger, and her enemies would say the term suits Laura Choi.
But a kot baem can also be anything with dangerous allure. Tightly coiled, poisonous temptation, always ready to strike. You walk in a casino and it infuses you. It's called greed.
Against the Odds Late-night cocktails at the Mandalay Bay, another new billion-dollar casino on the Strip. This one boasts its own 11-acre "tropical lagoon." The barmaids' tight crimson teddies suggest Larry Flynt served as fashion consultant. The bar is crawling with ladies who might seem to qualify as flowered snakes.
Choi is dressed in an understated sweater and slacks; no makeup as usual. She sits at a jade green table with her lawyers, sharing photos of her 15-year-old son. She's divorced; she left Korea when she was 21, looking for a better life in this country, while her husband stayed behind.
"I just want to be a good mother--to provide for my son," she says.
Choi sees herself as a victim of an inhuman, avaricious corporation. "They think they can take advantage of the small people," she says, "because they are big and powerful people."
Wynn's attorneys believe she's living on stolen receipts. More lies, says Choi. She enumerates: She shops at 99-cent stores, drives a 9-year-old car, has an $89,000 home in Vegas and a $700-per-month apartment in California where her son attends school. The IRS investigated her, she claims, and found she had no $500,000.
"My understanding is that she's living off her savings," says Choi's attorney, Gregory W. Smith. "If there's any money, it's over in Korea. Let the Mirage go over there and pick it up and bring it back. I can tell you one thing: My client's not going to bring it back."
As she makes her way though the casino, hugging her black satchel, Choi averts her eyes from the gaming tables. She doesn't play baccarat or anything else. She hasn't placed a bet in 20 years. She's seen too many losers.
Choi has decided something about her case: "It's not about the money. I've been rich and I've been poor."
But then she quickly recalculates, changes her mind. Money is important. She wants a lot of it: "I want to get even with Steve Wynn. I told my lawyer I don't want to settle for a little money."
Let the jury decide, she says. She allows herself a small chuckle. She knows taking on the most powerful man in Nevada is a risky strategy.
"Double or nothing," she says.
Vegas. Nobody can resist a gamble.
CAPTION: "They throw me out like a rug," says Laura Choi, fired from her marketing job at the Mirage casino after spending 79 days in a Korean prison for illegally collecting gambling debts.
CAPTION: Rival casino titans Steve Wynn, left, and Donald Trump are battling in court over Choi's customer list.
CAPTION: After being jailed, fired and sued, Choi worries she will never work in a casino again. She helps to support her 81-year-old mother, Ki Bok Park, right, who lives in Choi's Las Vegas home.
CAPTION: The career of a top official of the $1.6 billion Bellagio was briefly threatened by the Choi matter.