updated 2/6/2009 1:56:42 PM ET 2009-02-06T18:56:42

A prominent Nebraska philanthropist faces felony theft and bad check charges after allegedly running up almost $15 million in gambling debts at two Las Vegas casinos.

Terrance Watanabe, 52, must appear in court Feb. 18 to answer charges stemming from allegations that he failed to make good on casino loans, called markers, he obtained from Caesars Palace and the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino, officials said Thursday.

"He had no intention of not paying his lawful obligations," said his attorney, David Chesnoff, pointing to what he called Watanabe's "history of philanthropy and his history as a great customer at Las Vegas casinos."

A four-count criminal complaint alleges Watanabe failed to make good on 38 casino markers worth $14.75 million written in 2007. The markers were issued from Oct. 22 to Dec. 11 for amounts ranging from $200,000 to $875,000 at the two Harrah's Entertainment Inc. properties. The complaint doesn't specify what Watanabe gambled on.

A Harrah's spokeswoman, Jacqueline Peterson, declined comment on the case.

Nevada state law treats casino markers as checks, and allows jurisdictions to recover 10 percent collection costs if criminal charges are filed.

Deputy Clark County District Attorney Bernie Zadrowski said Watanabe agreed before an arrest warrant was issued to appear before Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Bill Jansen.

Watanabe will get a chance to post $1.5 million cash bail to remain out of jail pending a trial, Zadrowski said. No plea will be taken at his initial appearance.

Chesnoff said Watanabe will "absolutely" plead not guilty when the time comes. He could face probation or up to 16 years in prison if convicted of all charges.

Running up a tab
Watanabe is the son of Harry Watanabe, founder of Oriental Trading Co., an Omaha, Neb., company that grew from a gift shop in 1932 to a large import wholesaler and direct marketer of toys, novelties and party supplies.

Terrance "Terry" Watanabe headed the company for 23 years before selling it in 2000. He has since developed a reputation as a generous benefactor to political campaigns and nonprofit organizations.

Zadrowski, chief of the district attorney's bad check unit, called $14.75 million "without a doubt the largest case we've ever had."

"That doesn't mean we'll treat it any differently than a $7 bad check for Girl Scout cookies," he said. "Practically speaking, the elements of the case are the same."

Zadrowski said most casino disputes don't get this far.

"These cases are brought to us as a last resort by the casinos," he said. "The casinos will attempt to collect the markers, and when their efforts are fruitless, the cases are passed to the DA's office."

In addition to Watanabe's alleged casino debt, Zadrowski said he will be billed $1,475,050 by Clark County, representing a bad check processing and prosecution fee and a $50 surcharge.

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