Racing resignation not linked to theft

BLAIR ENSOR
Last updated 09:42 24/02/2013
Tony Lee
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ
SIGNING OFF: Tony Lee at Wellington’s Trax Bar.

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The shock resignation of legendary racing commentator Tony Lee is not linked to the theft of thousands of dollars of cash from his bar's pokie machines, police say.

Instead, they believe Lee - a former Trackside caller and owner of Trax Bar in Wellington - is a victim and they are trying to find a former employee who allegedly stole about $40,000 from his bar over a six-month period last year.

It is understood police are looking for the bar's former duty manager, Martin James Veiagina, 33, originally from Niue.

His mother, Tupe Veiagina, of Auckland, said she did not believe her son was a thief and was "shocked" to hear police were looking for him. She had not heard from him since last year and did not know where he was.

Lee complained to police in August after he suspected money had been siphoned from the bar's pokie machines. The police began an investigation about a week later. It is understood their evidence includes CCTV footage and receipts and documents from gaming machines in the bar.

"Information supplied to police so far indicates that the owners of the Trax Bar may have been the victims of theft by a former employee," Inspector Terry van Dillen said this week.

"No arrests have been made, but we are keen to speak with this former employee and would encourage them to make contact with police."

Department of Internal Affairs gambling compliance director Debbie Despard said the department had put its investigation into "banking irregularities" at the bar on hold until the police inquiry finished.

"At that point the department will assess whether . . . any persons connected with Trax needs to be investigated," Despard said.

Trax Bar, beside platform 1 of Wellington Railway Station, has 18 pokie machines. The machines were switched off last year when the New Zealand Community Trust became aware of a late bank payment. Publicans with pokie machines are meant to bank their takings one week in arrears, meaning they often carry a large amount of cash.

Trust chief executive Mike Knell said the machines would remain switched off "until we have sufficient closure".

Lee, regarded as one of the best race callers in the business, suddenly quit the Trackside channel in October, just days before he was due to call a major race meeting. He offered no explanation for his resignation, which has been the subject of intense speculation among TAB employees, who have questioned why the betting agency took direct ownership of the outlet at Trax Bar early last year.

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TAB communications manager John Mitchell said this week that the site was very important because of its proximity to Westpac Stadium. He would neither confirm nor deny the bar owed money to the TAB, but said "we have a commercial arrangement in place that all parties are happy with".

- The Dominion Post

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