BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN AND JIM DOOLEY – On the face of it, Hong Fa is a small grocery store on Maunakea Street in Chinatown.
But on Tuesday, May 1, it was one of four Chinatown businesses raided by the FBI, IRS, Homeland Security Investigations and Honolulu Police in an illegal lottery investigation.
Earlier, Hawaii Reporter captured Deth Soulatha and his wife, owners of Hong Fa, on hidden camera promoting the illegal lottery. On several occasions, his wife sold lottery numbers to our undercover reporter.
This Hawaii game of chance copies the national lottery in Thailand, run by the Thai government. Bettors can purchase a ticket with either two or three numbers on it. If those same numbers bought here in Hawaii match the numbers drawn back in Thailand on the 15th and 30th of the month, that ticket wins. A $10 bet on two matching numbers gets $700; match three, the prize is $5,000.
Lottery tickets are sold primarily to Laotian and Thai immigrants and residents. Reportedly winners have taken in as much as $100,000 and $200,000 on two bets in recent weeks.
As agents closed Hong Fa Tuesday morning to rifle through receipts and records, nearby at Pacific Gateway Center, Deth Soulatha was having trouble at his other job.
He has worked for several years for the non-profit Pacific Gateway Center where he was hired to help Asian immigrants. Pacific Gateway Center employs translators and acts as a translating service for government agencies and local businesses. The agency also helps immigrants obtain loans to start businesses. Deth Soulatha was a loan officer, helped with maintenance, and briefly had check-signing authority.
On Tuesday, Deth Soulatha was laid off from his job. The executive director of Pacific Gateway Center, Tin Myaing Thein, said her organization could no longer afford his position.
She said Pacific Gateway Center, a non-profit, relies on about $450,000 a year in funding from the Hawaii State Legislature. But this year, Pacific Gateway Center, which has two locations and about 15 employees, did not receive any funding in this upcoming budget.
The legislature ended Thursday, May 3, and grants-in-aid were decided this week. Rep. Karl Rhodes, D-Downtown Honolulu, has been on the board of the directors of the organization, but that didn’t help to ensure funding, Thein said, because the legislator recused himself from voting on funding for their organization.
Thein said two other employees were also laid off that day.
She said she had no idea that Deth Soulatha was allegedly involved in an illegal gambling operation. Pacific Gateway Center has always opposed gambling, Thein said, which is illegal in all forms in Hawaii.
Thein said ironically her organization is part of an anti-gambling coalition that annually lobbies against legalized gambling at the legislature.
She refuted any suggestion he was laid off because of the federal investigation into his business, and said the timing was coincidental.
“He had a very bad day,” Thein said.
Deth Soulatha could not be reached for comment.
Besides Hong Fa, search warrants were served on Tuesday at three small businesses in Maunakea Marketplace in Chinatown, a privately operated complex that sits on land leased from the City and County of Honolulu.
Other businesses that were targeted in the raid include Adam’s Mini-Market, a fresh food vendor; Siamese Monster, which sells music and videos; and a third unnamed food stall that is marked by the numbers 110-C.
The night before, warrants were served at the homes of Khemma Pannga Xoumanivong, 63, and Bounkouam Khamphilavanh, 47, at Palolo Valley Homes.
Palolo Housing is a government owned affordable housing complex based in Palolo Valley, where units, which are subsidized by taxpayers, should go to Hawaii’s poorest residents.
Hawaii Reporter confirmed the sisters, including one who drives a 2012 Mercedes Benz, are also receiving welfare benefits normally reserved for Hawaii’s needy.
Tom Simon, spokesperson for the FBI, said the underlying investigation involves allegations of an illegal gambling operation. He said no one has been charged with a crime or is being arrested at this time, but he declined to discuss details of the case.
The lottery operation is widespread and not every business selling these lottery numbers was raided.
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