The commissioner leading the inquiry into Crown Resorts has challenged the “good sense” of it opening its new Sydney casino in December, as a senior Crown director claimed that she had been pressured to sign-off on a statement refuting media reports of its alleged links to organised crime.
Supreme Court judge Patricia Bergin is due to report the findings of her inquiry and whether Crown should keep its NSW casino licence on February 1, 2021, but the ASX-listed casino operator has said it will open its new $2.2 billion Barangaroo casino on December 14.
Commissioner Bergin asked Crown director Jane Halton, a former top federal bureaucrat and current National COVID-19 Commission advisory board member, whether Crown had considered “that it may be perhaps inappropriate to open a casino which is the subject of a suitability inquiry?”
“I’m very aware that your report is due in February,” said Ms Halton, who is up for re-election of Crown’s annual general meeting next week. “In terms of that delaying the opening, no that’s not something I’m aware of having been discussed.”
“I’m not talking about the opening of the building, and the opening of the restaurants and all the other wonderful aspects,” Commissioner Bergin continued. “Has any thought been given to the propriety or good sense – whichever you wish – in proceeding to open a casino at a time when there is an inquiry into the suitability of the licensee?
“Not that I’m aware of commissioner, no,” Ms Halton said.
It is the first time the inquiry has raised the prospect of Crown delaying, by choice or force, the opening of its new casino. Crown already faced the difficulty of being cut off from international high-rollers due to COVID-19, which were to provide around a third of its profits.
The NSW inquiry, which has the same powers as a royal commission, also heard Ms Halton claim Crown’s former executive chairman John Alexander “pressured” her into signing an error-ridden newspaper ad attacking news reports by this masthead last year, which triggered the inquiry, as being part of a “deceitful campaign”.
The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes last year revealed the Crown went into business with high-roller “junket” tour operators, failed to prevent money laundering at its Melbourne and Perth casinos, and ignored the danger it exposed its staff to in China prior to 19 being arrested and jailed there in 2016.
Ms Halton, who has been a director on Crown’s board since 2018 and chairs its risk management and compliance committees, was asked on Thursday about Crown’s ASX statement and full-page newspaper ads that were signed by all directors. The inquiry has exposed that Crown’s statement is full of factual errors.
“Did you feel at all pressured to sign onto this full-page, ASX media release?” counsel assisting Naomi Sharp, SC asked?
“Yes, Ms Sharp,” Ms Halton said.
“Who do you feel applied that pressure to you?” Ms Sharp continued.
“There was pressure from the executive chairman [John Alexander, who remains a Crown director] and some others.”
Ms Halton said that she was the last director to sign the statement, and that at the time she had already developed concerns about how Crown ignored signs its staff were at risk in China, which the reports detailed.
Counsel assisting Adam Bell, SC, said that given those concerns were not reflected in Crown’s statement she signed, it was “neither completely truthful or completely accurate”.
“I actually think that is a step too far,” Ms Halton said, noting the statement said Crown was “always striving” for the highest levels of governance and standards.
The ad also attacked the credibility of one of the Crown employees who were jailed in China, Jenny Jiang, and appeared in the media exposé. Commissioner Bergin asked whether it was “a little rich” to “expect objectivity from a young woman who has been jailed?”
Ms Halton agreed, but said she pushed back against fellow director Guy Jalland suggestion to use “completely inflammatory” and “inappropriate” language attacking Ms Jiang in a draft release.
She said with hindsight, she would not sign the statement again.
Ms Halton also told the inquiry she no longer had confidence in senior Crown executives Barry Felstead and Joshua Preston after the inquiry revealed their complicity in Crown’s shortcomings, and whose positions are now under review.
However, she still had confidence in Ken Barton – who was elevated from chief financial officer to CEO in January – despite her concerns about his involvement in Crown’s now notorious Southbank and Riverbank bank accounts, which were used for suspected money laundering on 602 occasions since 2012.
“There are a number of issues that need to be discussed in relation to appropriate reporting going forward and judgment about those matters,” Ms Halton said, “But yes, I do have confidence in Mr Barton.”
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