Carson Yeung, owner of English soccer club Birmingham City, asked a Hong Kong court to halt his trial for laundering HK$721.3 million ($93 million) because records of his wealth from stock trading can’t be obtained.
“No fair trial was possible,” because documents crucial to the defense aren’t available, Yeung’s lawyer Graham Harris told District Court Judge Douglas Yau today. Stock brokers are only required to keep records for seven years, Harris said.
Yeung, who pleaded not guilty today to five charges of handling the proceeds of crime over a seven-year period before buying control of Birmingham City in 2009, had earlier won a delay of the trial from November. His lawyers then said the former hairdresser was already wealthy at the time the alleged offenses began in 2001.
“What this case is concerned with is where did the money come from in the first place,” John Reading, a lawyer for the Department of Justice, told the court. “Very little money has passed through the securities accounts,” he said.
Judge Yau adjourned the hearing until Friday, he said he would rule on the application for a permanent stay.
Yeung, 53, last month lost a bid to transfer the case to a higher court, with Judge Alan Wright ruling it an attempt to disrupt today’s trial.
Yeung bought Birmingham City in October 2009 for 81.5 million pounds ($126.5 million) from David and Ralph Gold and David Sullivan. He paid for the club using funds from a share offering underwritten by Kingston Securities Ltd., controlled by billionaire Chu Yuet-wah, which has interests including casino operations in Macau and investment services.
Birmingham International Holdings Ltd., parent company of the West Midlands, U.K.-based soccer team, has been suspended from trading in Hong Kong since June 2011, after police charged Yeung. It had a 37 percent drop in sales for the year ended June 30, 2012 after the club’s relegation from the top-tier Premier League in 2011, according to its 2012 annual report.
The case comes to trial as the number of suspicious transaction reports filed to Hong Kong authorities by banks and others required to do so doubled to 23,282 last year from a decade ago.
“It seems that larger and larger sums are being converted in money laundering,” Judge Esther Toh said in January in a separate case when she sentenced a Chinese high-school dropout to 10 and a half years in prison for laundering HK$13 billion through a Hong Kong bank over eight months.
Toh said policy makers may want to consider if the maximum sentence for the crime was adequate given the importance of preserving Hong Kong’s reputation as a financial center of integrity.
The number of people convicted of money laundering in Hong Kong last year fell to 166 from 246 in 2011 and 360 in 2010, according to the city’s Joint Financial Intelligence Unit.
Hong Kong’s sophisticated banking system, so-called shell company formation agents and absence of currency controls make it vulnerable to money laundering, according to the U.S. State Department.
This year’s convictions of the school dropout and of a 61-year-old woman who lives in public housing and who the judge said wasn’t the mastermind of the offense have led some lawmakers to ask if banks are doing enough to fight the problem.
Authorities in Hong Kong now have more powers under a new anti-money laundering law introduced last year that makes it a criminal offense for financial institutions to fail to carry out due diligence checks and monitor business relationships. The maximum penalty for such breaches is seven years in jail and a HK$1 million fine.
The Hong Kong Monetary Authority last week told chief executives of banks in the city to strengthen their controls and systems and said it was doubling the size of its anti-money laundering team.
“The regulators will be looking to demonstrate that they are being effective and making an impact” with ramped-up enforcement, Abdulali Jiwaji, a partner at Simmons & Simmons in Hong Kong, commented in an e-mail.
Singapore, another Asian financial center, is also tightening its money-laundering laws. From July, laundering the benefits of tax offenses will be a crime there. Convictions for money laundering in the Southeast Asian city rose to 25 in 2011 from 18 a year earlier, according to figures from the Singapore police.
The case is Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Yeung Ka-sing Carson, DCCC860/2011 in the Hong Kong District Court.