In the late 1990s, urban writer and activist Mike Davis described Las Vegas as “hypergrowth without counterpart social spending” and a city built on “slavish dependence on cheap water and energy.” The famous Las Vegas “miracle,” Davis noted, “demonstrates the fanatical persistence of an environmentally and socially bankrupt system of human settlement and confirms Edward Abbey’s worst nightmares about the emergence of an apocalyptic urbanism in the Southwest.”
Of course, as Davis also pointed out, it’s a genuinely unique city, quite unlike any other in the U.S. or the rest of the world, for that matter. Fake pyramid? Check. Fake Eiffel Tower and New York skyline? Check. Pirate ship that sinks, then re-floats every few hours? Check and check.
For Hawaii residents, Las Vegas is part vacation destination, part home to a very extended ohana. It’s called “the ninth island” for a reason. Ever since 1975–as the story goes in California Hotel and Casino: Hawaii’s Home Away from Home, the UH Press-published book by Dennis M. Ogawa, John M. Blink and Mike Gordon that tells the story of Sam Boyd’s California Hotel in downtown Las Vegas–Hawaii’s residents have flocked to Sin City. A 2012 Las Vegas Weekly story titled “The Ninth Island” quotes a 2010 Census figure citing 16,300 Nevada residents claiming Hawaiian or Pacific Islander descent, but that number doesn’t include any former Hawaii residents of mixed ethnicity.
Regardless, many, many Hawaii residents visit Vegas every year. That same Las Vegas Weekly story reported that the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority states that in 2010, “there were approximately 7,000 airline seats flying from Hawaii to McCarran International Airport every week, bringing 260,000 visitors from Honolulu to the desert.”
One of those visitors is Maui County Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong–the chief attorney for the county. A trial attorney specializing in personal injury and worker’s compensation before he took over as Corporation Counsel (“legal adviser and legal representative of the County of Maui,” according to his official job description) in 2010, Wong is famous in the county halls for his love of Scotch and cigars (one county official even told me that Wong is really looking forward to the U.S. normalizing relations with Cuba so he can start getting Cuban cigars).
Wong also regularly visits Las Vegas each year, according to the Financial Disclosure Statements he’s filed with the Maui County Board of Ethics (click here to see the statements for Wong and the rest of the county’s top appointed officials). And over the past four or five years, these statements show, his trips to Vegas have clearly been worth far more than the nearly six hours it takes to fly there. In fact, they show that since 2011, Wong has earned somewhere between $500,000 and $1.2 million gambling in Vegas.
The forms don’t tell us much about Wong’s gambling habits. Wong has also been quiet about his gambling activities even among other attorneys and high officials at the county. In fact, the most common reactions I got from canvassing officials in preparation for this story were the words “wow!” and “I never heard that.”
Wong’s gambling also never seems to have come up during his contentious re-confirmation this year. While dozens of people showed up to testify against him during a Maui County Council hearing on Feb. 6 to criticize his decisions regarding the pending lawsuits over the county’s voter-approved anti-GMO moratorium and the Lahaina Wastewater Treatment Plant injection wells, the words “gambling” and “Las Vegas” never came up, according to minutes of that hearing.
Through a spokesperson, Wong declined to comment for this story.
“He doesn’t want to talk,” county Communications Director Rod Antone told me on June 10. “Not because he’s being cagey, but because he doesn’t want to jinx it. And if he starts losing after this article comes out, he’s gonna blame you.”
Wong’s Financial Disclosure Statements indicate that even without his gambling winnings, he’s one of the wealthier county officials (his own annual income as Corporation Counsel is between $100,000 and $200,000). That’s in large part due to Cynthia Wong, his wife. She’s a trial attorney with the Wailuku law firm Krueger Wong. Patrick Wong’s Financial Disclosure Statements indicate that her annual compensation ranges from $500,000 to in excess of $1 million.
In any case, Antone told me that Wong plays poker, craps and slot machines.
Seriously, government-mandated Financial Disclosure Statements are never this interesting. Meant to show the public an official’s financial interests–and, thus, potential conflicts of interest–they’re usually vague, dull documents listing home mortgages, car and student loans and minor credit card debt. Instead of including actual dollar amounts, they allow officials to check off boxes next to dollar amount ranges–“Less than $1,000,” $50,000 to $99,999” and so forth.
Wong took office as Corporation Counsel in early 2011, appointed by Mayor Alan Arakawa shortly after his 2010 reelection victory. Wong filed his first Financial Disclosure Statement on Mar 18, 2011. That form outlined all Wong’s financial interests in 2010. On that particular form, the box labeled “ITEM 2–OTHER EARNINGS, INCOME, OR COMPENSATION IN ANY FORM” was blank.
But a year later, Wong’s 2012 form, containing all his 2011 activities, was very different. So were all his statements since, up to the most recent one, filed on Feb. 20, 2015. For these forms, ITEM 2 included the words “Gambling Winnings.” Here’s how they broke down:
• 2012–Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino: $25,000 to $49,999; Harrah’s Entertainment: $25,000 to $49,999
• 2013– Harrah’s/MGM: $200,000 to $499,999
• 2014–Harrah’s/MGM: $200,000 to $499,999
• 2015–Harrah’s/MGM: $50,000 to $99,999
According to these statements, Wong was on fire in 2012 and 2013, taking at least $400,000 from Harrah’s and the MGM during those years. The next year, 2014, not so much, though few of us would turn down a chance to fly home with at least 50 Gs in our pocket.
Given the use of dollar ranges instead of actual figures, assessing Wong’s actual winnings is difficult (as well as the earnings, investments and holdings of everyone else who has to file these statements). But we can say that, according to his own disclosure forms, in the years 2011 through 2014 Wong won between $500,000 and $1,199,995 gambling in Vegas. For a guy playing poker, slots and craps, those are impressive figures.
“A lot of us go to Vegas,” Antone told me. “Usually, you hear, ‘Ugh, I was winning, but then I stayed too long and lost.’ If there’s someone out there who’s winning, more power to him.”
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photo of Patrick Wong courtesy County of Maui