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Sin City Woes: Wealthy Philanthropist Takes On Harrah's Casino For Millions

Dec. 9 2009, Published 9:36 a.m. ET

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Las Vegas is a town known for indulgence, but for one wealthy businessman, the allure of the city was too much and he’s fighting back at a giant of the famed Nevada strip for taking advantage of his addictions.

Terrance “Terry” Watanabe lost $127 million dollars through gambling in 2007 alone and is requesting the outstanding $14 million he owes to Harrah’s Entertainment be forgiven since the casino’s employees supplied him with drugs and alcohol to keep him playing. According to Nevada laws, it is illegal for a casino to allow a person under the influence to gamble.

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Watanabe is fighting the remaining balance because he says that Harrah's agreed to discount his losses and other incenctives, but never did.

Read The Court Documents Here

“Terry takes full responsibility for his gambling and alcohol addiction, but Harrah's needs to take responsibility for predatory practices," Watanabe’s lawyer Pierce O’Donnell said. The philanthropist’s gambling at various Harrah’s Entertainment casinos (which include Caesar’s Palace and the Rio Resort) accounted for a staggering 5.6% of the company’s profit in 2007 according to O’Donnell.

An explosive letter obtained by from O'Donnell to the  Nevada Gaming Commission states: "for several months, the same Caesars handler, as well as other Caesars employees, specifically hosts, floor persons, and supervisors, thereafter continued to supply Mr. Watanabe with large quantities of Lortab pills. Caesars employees provided Mr. Watanabe large volumes of alcohol and large quantities of prescription pills in their capacities as employees of, and for the benefit of, Caesars and Harrah's - and with their senior management's knowledge and approval." The documents also reveal that when Watanabe wasn't on the floor gambling, hotel employees would call and visit his room to get him to go back down and gamble. 

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Watanabe had filed a civil suit against Harrah's Entertainment in regards to the outstanding balance he owes. After Harrah's Entertainment turned the case over to Clark County prosecutors, Watanabe was charged with fraud and theft. If convicted, he could serve up to 28 years in jail.

"The worst part of this predicament is that a legitimate business dispute is being criminalized. There was a good faith dispute with Harrah's that Mr. Watanabe attempted to settle in 2008, but Harrah's simply turned it over to the district attorney who then indicted him," O'Donnell asserts.

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Watanabe sold his company The Oriental Trading Company in 2000 and established a philanthropic foundation in Omaha. But by 2007, the lure of Las Vegas had become so powerful that he was spending most of his time in Sin City.

Unlike Harrah’s, Vegas heavyweight Steve Wynn appropriately cut off Watanabe after noticing the businessman’s personal demons.

"Terry was cut off personally by Steve Wynn after he recognized that Terry had an alcohol and gambling addiction,” O’Donnell adds. “We believe that Mr. Wynn acted appropriately under his casino's gambling responsibility practices."

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The Las Vegas Gaming Commission is monitoring the situation and O'Donnell has subpoenaed surveillance video and other evidence from Caesars and the Rio which they are refusing to turn over. O'Donnell is going back to court in Las Vegas in January to attempt to retrieve video evidence he is confident will show that his client was intoxicated when he was gambling.

O'Donnell would like the criminal case thrown out against his client and for the outstanding debt forgiven. Watanabe has lost much of his fortune to gambling and is now living in San Francisco.

"Terry went to rehab for his gambling and alcohol addiction, and he now wants to work with other

gambling addicts, he wants to try to make lemonade out of lemons," O'Donnell said.



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