A former Macau junket operator at the heart of a high-profile, ongoing illegal gambling case in Las Vegas has a prior conviction for the same offence. Paul Phua Wei-seng, 50, a Malaysian native from Sarawak, was arrested in the Southeast Asian nation in 2004 and convicted for his involvement in an illegal betting scheme during the European Championship soccer tournament, independent news outfit Malaysiakini reported this week, citing police sources. He was slapped with a hefty fine and left the country soon after his conviction, reportedly to Vietnam to escape people who lost money when the betting operation was going bust. The report has caused ripples across Malaysia because it follows a controversial announcement last month by Malaysia’s home affairs minister that Phua was assisting the government on issues of national security – but remained vague on how he was doing so. Phua’s legal team had not replied to questions about the report as of press time. The Malaysian is currently facing court in Las Vegas, where he stands accused of running an illegal World Cup gambling operation from a number of luxury suites in the city’s Caesars Palace hotel. An online message found on his computer during a police raid suggested that bets of the alleged operation reached a “grand total” of HK$2.7 billion, according to court documents. US federal prosecutors alleged the group made a profit of US$13 million in June and July on soccer bets. Phua’s lawyers – who are strenuously contesting the charges – have challenged the admissibility of evidence including the online message in court. The man once known as “The Shot” was Macau’s top earning junket operator a decade ago, before becoming a prominent high-stakes poker player. Agents from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation also believe he plays a central role in what is probably the world’s biggest sports gambling agency, IBCBet. Speaking to Malaysiakini, police sources referred to the Malaysian as “the biggest bookie in Asia”, who has high-level connections to senior politicians. His trial in the US gambling mecca has been marked by incidents and revelations that have drawn the gaze of international media. Last month, it emerged that Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi wrote a letter in support of Phua to the deputy director of the FBI. In the “private and confidential letter” obtained by the South China Morning Post , Zahid denied FBI allegations that Phua is a member of Hong Kong’s notorious 14K triad. He also claimed Phua was assisting the nation on issues of national security. “Mr Phua has, on numerous occassions [sic], assisted the Government of Malaysia on projects affecting our national security and accordingly we continue to call upon him to assist us from time to time and as such we are eager for him to return to Malaysia,” Zahid wrote in the letter dated December 18. Despite calls to resign from opposition politicians and the possibility of a police probe, Zahid has declined to explain how exactly Phua was assisting with issues of national security.