Philanthropist Pleads Not Guilty

LAS VEGAS (AP) - A prominent Nebraska philanthropist today pleaded not guilty to felony charges that he failed to repay almost $15 million in gambling debts to two Las Vegas casinos.

Terrance "Terry" Watanabe and his lawyer declined comment about the case as they left the Clark County courthouse after their brief appearance before a judge. A trial was scheduled for Nov. 16.

In a statement, attorney David Chesnoff said his client "could not and did not commit the crimes with which he has been charged because he did not, among other things, have the requisite intent."

The 52-year-old former Oriental Trading Co. businessman could face probation or up to 16 years in prison if convicted of two felony theft and two bad check charges. He remained free on $1.5 million cash bail posted in February, when criminal charges were initially filed against him.

A grand jury indicted Watanabe on April 29, despite a letter from his lawyers claiming hosts at Caesars Palace and the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino plied Watanabe with drinks and prescription drugs while he gambled.

The letter said witnesses can testify that Watanabe was kept "significantly and visibly intoxicated" while playing table games
in late 2007.

Prosecutor Bernie Zadrowski, chief of the Clark County district attorney's bad check unit, has called $14.75 million the largest bad check case ever in Las Vegas. He declined comment Wednesday.

Chesnoff has called Watanabe "a great customer at Las Vegas casinos," and said in the grand jury letter that Watanabe has made good on more than $70 million in past debts to the two casinos.

Casino giant Harrah's Entertainment Inc. owns both properties. A company official declined comment about Watanabe's claims or the criminal case.

Nevada law treats written casino markers as checks, and allows criminal prosecution for failure to pay. Clark County can impose a 10 percent fee and $50 surcharge, meaning Watanabe also faces a bill from the district attorney for about $1.5 million.

Watanabe has reputation as a generous political and philanthropic benefactor. In 2000, he sold the Omaha, Neb.-based import wholesale business that his father founded.

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