HONG KONG (Reuters) - Birmingham City Football Club owner Carson Yeung wrapped up his testimony on Tuesday, four weeks after he first took the witness stand in a $93 million money-laundering trial that has cast a spotlight on how the barber-turned-businessman made his fortune.
Yeung, a former hair stylist to Hong Kong’s rich and famous and head of Hong Kong-listed Birmingham International Holdings Ltd, told the court he amassed his wealth through hairdressing, share trading, real estate purchases in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and London, gambling and other investments.
“(It was) quite successful,” the 53-year-old told the Hong Kong court on several occasions, referring to his business dealings, which also included multi-million dollar gambling sessions on the baccarat tables in Macau.
“I gambled as if it was a business,” he said, in a case that has grabbed headlines in Hong Kong and is being closely watched by fans of English football team Birmingham City.
Yeung has denied five charges of money-laundering involving HK$721 million ($93 million). The offences allegedly took place from January 2001 to December 2007 and involved five bank accounts.
The trial has revealed the flamboyant businessman’s close ties to Macau’s casino world, both as an investor and gambler, and how that facilitated business investments that helped him amass his wealth.
The football club boss told the court how he first started gambling in the former Portuguese enclave of Macau around 1997 and in 2004 was introduced to the Neptune VIP Club, a gambling facility in Macau’s Casino Lisboa. There he received a credit line of HK$10 million without the need for him to provide proof of his assets.
In 2005, Lin Cheuk-fung and Cheung Chi-tai offered Yeung the chance to invest in junket operator Neptune Group, the court was told. Junket operators bring in gamblers from mainland China and offer lines of credit and often collect the debts from them.
“They knew that I understood the operations of a listed company. That’s why they asked me to join,” Yeung said, adding that he and his father together invested roughly HK$26.4 million and, through a private transaction that did not involve stockbrokers, took a 20 percent stake in Neptune Group.
In a separate deal in 2005, Yeung took 20 percent of Lin Cheuk-fung’s shares in the Neptune VIP Club.
“I was the shareholder behind the scenes,” he told the court. He and his father bought Lin’s shares for HK$20 million and the interest on his investment generated about HK$300,000 each month, according to Yeung.
Prosecutors, when making their case, highlighted what they believed to be suspicious cheque payments made to Yeung by companies affiliated with Neptune, or from personal accounts of employees of these companies.
Yeung said that because the payments came from various entities connected to Neptune, he did not consider it inappropriate.
The self-confessed football lover bemoaned the difficulty he had in convincing people to testify on his behalf, saying several former associates either could not be located or refused to appear in court.
His lawyers have insisted that Yeung is a successful businessman whose investments provided money to buy assets including various properties, a custom-made Mercedes Maybach car for about HK$6 million and an 88-foot yacht worth about HK$49 million.
When Yeung’s defense lawyer asked if Birmingham City Football Club had been bought with dirty money, Yeung replied that was “impossible” and said the money was legitimate.
Yeung initially bought 29.91 percent of the shares in Birmingham City FC in 2007 and then acquired the rest of the shares for approximately 81.5 million pounds ($130.18 million) in 2009, through his company Birmingham International Holdings Ltd.
Trading in the company’s stock has been suspended since Yeung’s arrest in 2011, but a company filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange in November said that trading could resume within a few months. It also announced that Yeung will suspend his management duties within the company, either until the case against him comes to a “favorable close” or until he resigns.
Football fans, some of whom have blamed Yeung for failing to help lift the fortunes of the Birmingham City team, which dropped out of the Premier League in 2011, will be watching the outcome closely.
Closing arguments are scheduled for December 12, with a verdict not expected until next year.
($1 = 0.6261 British pounds)
($1 = 7.7535 Hong Kong dollars)
Additional reporting by Grace Li; Editing by Matt Driskill