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HK employer admits operating online sex service with Filipina helper

05 October 2020

By Vir B. Lumicao 

Palpal-latoc (with black backpack) leaves court after pleading guilty to 4 offences

A Hong Kong employer and her Filipina helper have both pleaded guilty in District Court today, Oct 5, to conspiring to live on the earnings of prostitution for running an online sex booking service out of a luxury Mid-Levels flat.

Filipina helper Jo-an E. Palpal-latoc, 45, also admitted three charges of charges of money laundering by handling a total of $24.7 million in proceeds from the prostitution ring, which went directly to bank accounts controlled by her employer.

Her employer, Heidi Wong Pui-ting, 68, pleaded guilty to only two of the laundering counts, and denied the third one, concerning an undetermined amount of money deposited in her American Express account in Macau.

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The prosecution said in all, $32.2 million was deposited in an account in Fubon Bank and two in HSBC in the name of Firstmount Investments, which Wong controlled as the company's sole shareholder and director.

Judge Amanda Woodcock set the sentencing of the two for the admitted charges on Monday, Oct 12.  Wong will be put on trial later on the third money laundering case that she denied.

Prosecution lawyer Andrew Raffell told the judge it could take time to complete the investigation as American Express was delaying the sharing of documents relating to the credit card payments by customers of the online sex booking services.

The employer and her maid will be sentenced at District Court on Oct 12

The guilty pleas ended nearly two years of court hearings that began in November 2018 after police busted the operation six months earlier.

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Wong, Palpal-latoc, and a second domestic helper, Jeanette Gallego, were arrested when police raided the employer’s flat on Tavistock II, Tregunter Path, on May 15. 

In a police statement, Palpal-latoc said she and Gallego were told by Wong to answer client calls and contact the agents of prostitutes. This began a month after she was hired as a helper in late April 2009.

Gallego pleaded guilty to a charge of living on the earnings of prostitution on Oct 29 last year and was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

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Raffel, by way of background, said both Wong and Palpal-latoc had clear records.

He said Wong was born in China and worked as a clerk in an import-export business after coming to Hong Kong in 1969. She married her husband, a Hong Kong businessman, in 1979.

Palpal-latoc on the other hand, went to college in the Philippines and came to Hong Kong in 2009 to work as a helper. She is a single mother of two children who are now adults.

Tunghayan ang isa na namang kwentong Dream Love

In mitigation, Charlotte Draycott SC, who appeared for Wong, revealed that her client was once a sex worker herself, and had provided sexual services until her advancing age made it difficult for her to continue.

After her marriage, Wong’s husband reportedly found out about her being a prostitute, and as result refused to sleep with her so they had no children, but the two continued to live together.

Draycott claimed Wong had not run the business for years because she was struggling with depression and the onset or dementia.

The lawyer also argued that Wong had conducted an “honest and decent business” out in the open, and engaged consenting adults while earning $2.5 million a year.

Given this background, Draycott said her client was different from other offenders because “prostitution is a crime without victims, a crime that will carry on because men and women want to do it.”

Mohamed Shah, counsel for Palpal-Latoc, said his client should not have been charged with money laundering because she and Gallego were just following Wong’s orders.

Shah argued that Palpal-latoc, who was earning a measly $4,310 a month, was a victim, as she had been told that prostitution was legal in Hong Kong and it was alright for her to earn money on the side.

“[Wong] was the mastermind and the boss,” Shah said, adding the employer committed a gross breach of trust by getting Palpal-latoc involved in the illicit operation.

He said Wong paid the Filipina helpers only around $1,000 each month on top of their salaries, a very tiny amount compared with the more than $2.5 million a year that the employer earned from the operation.

Shah upset Draycott when he disclosed that Wong had tried to get Palpal-latoc not to plead guilty, using another woman from the Philippines to offer $300,000 to the Filipina to do so.

Draycott protested, saying she had to protect her client. Judge Woodcock backed her up.

Shah said Wong had taken advantage of the helper, who had to bear eight months in custody before being allowed to finally post bail.

Woodcock ordered Wong remanded in custody and extended Palpal-latoc’s bail pending the sentencing.

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