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Tycoon Ho sues family to recover lost billions

Macau's gambling magnate Stanley Ho has filed a court claim against his children to recover his assets, according to a signed court document, in another U-turn in a feud over the ailing tycoon's empire.

Just a day earlier, Ho, chairman of Macau's biggest casino operator SJM Holdings , had given a television interview saying he would not sue and that he wanted to resolve the matter privately with his family to end the feud.

The latest move in the zig-zagging tussle for the 89-year-old tycoon's billions of dollars of assets suggests an intensification in the scramble between factions of Ho's family, which includes four wives and at least 17 children.

Ho's lawyer, Gordon Oldham, said today he had filed a court claim on Ho's behalf against his children including Pansy and Lawrence Ho, other relatives and companies.

A copy of the court claim filed at Hong Kong's High Court stated that Ho was suing his third wife and the five children of his second wife for issuing new shares in Lanceford, the main holding company for Ho's interest in SJM, without his consent, effectively diluting Ho's stake to nothing.

The writ, signed by Ho, sought a reversal of the transaction and a declaration that the "shares were improperly and unlawfully allotted" while seeking an injunction to "restrain each of them" from making further share allotments or disposals.

"Regarding his statement on television, this was not his sentiment. He wants to continue. He is trying to get his wealth back," Oldham told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"He had been pressurized into making that statement."

Oldham said later the family was discussing matters.

For centuries a sleepy Portuguese outpost down the coast from bustling trade hub Hong Kong, Macau made gambling its business in a region where most betting has long been illegal. It reverted to Chinese rule in 1999, two years after Hong Kong.

Ho was granted a casino monopoly four decades ago and his company remains dominant even though the monopoly came to an end in 2002, opening the way to a flood of Las Vegas operators who have turned the enclave into the world's biggest gambling market.

Ho, who underwent brain surgery in 2009, appeared calm during his television interview yesterday, but his voice was weak and slurred as he appealed for harmony within his warring family, and to resolve the matter privately behind closed doors.

Analysts say the tussle over Ho's fortune may have been triggered by a move to pave the way for an orderly succession.

Last month, Ho's powerful fourth wife, Angela Leong, a former dance teacher who has five children, given a 7.03 percent stake by Ho in his gambling flagship company SJM, taking her shareholding up to 7.63 percent to make her the second largest single shareholder.

Leong is the managing director of SJM, where she plays a key day-to-day role in Ho's business, but has not received any assets in the recent share transaction.

Some analysts say the gift of shares to Leong may have upset rival branches of Ho's clan under his second wife, Lucina Laam, and third wife, Ina Chan un-Chan -- leading to the latest disputed asset transfer.

The restructuring in effect bolstered the third wife's stake in SJM to 8.9 percent while the second wife's five children plus Shun Tak Holdings' interest, now have effective control of about 15 percent of SJM.

Pansy Ho, a daughter of the second wife, is managing director and a major shareholder of property to transport conglomerate Shun Tak.

Adding spice was a plea from Angela Ho, a daughter of Ho's late first wife, Clementine Leitao, who said she couldn't believe her father would leave nothing to her mother's family.

"Her connections in Portugal and standing in Macau society was a big factor for my father winning the gambling monopoly in 1961," she was quoted as saying in a statement by the South China Morning Post.

The back and forth between the octogenarian and his family has amplified concern over succession plans and rattled investors.

Shares in SJM Holdings, Macau's largest casino operator, plunged as much as 8.8 percent on Wednesday on fears the dispute would hurt the $10 billion company.

On Thursday, however, the stock opened higher with a solid management team including veteran CEO Ambrose So expected to steer a steady course, and with SJM still dominating Macau's booming casino landscape with about a third of the market.

"In the very near term I think it's business as usual at the SJM level. It is kind of in autopilot mode," said Gabriel Chan, an analyst at Credit Suisse. "Unless what is going on will change things at the SJM management level, things seem to be OK in the near term. But of course if there is a change at the senior or top level, well no one knows."


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