The former head of NSW’s gambling watchdog has excoriated Crown Resorts for planning to open its Barangaroo casino in December before an inquiry decides whether its failures to prevent money laundering and criminal infiltration make it unfit to hold a licence.
Chris Sidoti, who chaired the NSW gambling regulator from 2008 to 2016, said the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority inquiry might be convinced to issue an interim report that could halt the James Packer-backed group’s plan to open Crown Sydney in mid-December.
“For Crown, after all that’s gone on, to open the Barangaroo facility before [Commissioner Patricia] Bergin has reported, to me it can only been seen as an act of bad faith,” the leading international human rights lawyer said.
The ILGA inquiry conducted by former Supreme Court judge Patricia Bergin has laid bare how Crown failed to stop money laundering at its Melbourne and Perth casinos, ignored a clear warning of doing business with individuals tied to Asian organised crime gangs and put its staff at risk of being arrested in China.
The Bergin inquiry, triggered by a series of reports in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes, needs to report back to ILGA by February 1 on whether Crown is fit to keep its licence. If not, the Commissioner will recommend what – if anything – it has to change to become fit.
But Crown has confirmed it intends to open the gambling mecca atop its $2.2 billion hotel, resort and luxury apartment tower in mid to late December.
While the NSW Casino Control Act gives ILGA the power to suspend or cancel Crown’s licence if it finds the company is no longer a “suitable” operator, Mr Sidoti said it would need to gain the backing of evidence from Commissioner Bergin before it could act.
“A provocative action – and that’s how I see it – by Crown in going ahead in opening may well be sufficient to convince the inquiry of a need to make an interim report in which it deals with this question of whether it’s fit and proper to retain the licence,” he said.
Until the inquiry hands down its findings, there would be an “open question” about whether Crown was fit to run a casino and keep it free from crime and criminal exploitation, said Mr Sidoti, who resigned from the regulator in early 2016 over concerns it was being stripped of its investigative powers and independence and has given evidence to the Bergin inquiry.
“Certainly the evidence given to the inquiry raises questions about those issues and it’s up to the inquiry and then up to ILGA to resolve those [questions],” he said.
Commissioner Bergin has expressed concern about Crown’s December opening date, and questioned Crown director Jane Halton about whether the ASX-listed group had considered whether it was appropriate or in “good sense” to open its gaming floors while her probity inquiry was under way.
Crown’s opening plans are also attracting political heat. The NSW Labor opposition’s spokeswoman on gambling, Sophie Cotsis, on Monday said she was “shocked” that Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello had “gone to ground” after Commissioner Bergin had raised serious concerns.
“Minister Dominello should have already picked up the phone asking for interim advice as to whether Crown should commence operations, pending the final report,” Ms Cotsis said.
“The inquiry heard startling revelations about the facilitation of money laundering, and Minister Dominello’s failure to respond has created a climate of suspicion.”
Mr Dominello declined to comment. The comments from NSW Labor about Crown’s licence potentially being suspended signal a potential shift in the politics of Barangaroo, which has enjoyed bipartisan support since James Packer pitched it to the O’Farrell government in 2012.
State Greens MP Jamie Parker, who is the member for nearby Balmain and party spokesman for anti-corruption, said the fact Crown’s licence had not already been suspended showed “just how effectively this multibillion-dollar corporation has intimidated the government”.
“Crown is demonstrably unfit to hold a gambling licence in NSW,” Mr Parker said. “At the very least, their licence should be suspended until the inquiry has concluded and all the details are public.”
Crown declined to comment. Crown chairman Helen Coonan said at its annual meeting two weeks ago that the company was expecting to implement a number of “significant and wide-ranging reforms” to improve its corporate governance, risk management and legal compliance by February.
“Crown will be engaging with the NSW government and ILGA about the reforms it has implemented and about the findings and recommendations of the inquiry,” Ms Coonan said.
Mr Sidoti said Crown opening the facility would not affect the inquiry or ILGA’s decision making, because they would not be “blackmailed into continuing the licence just because it’s opened”.
“But certainly it will be much more difficult for [Crown] staff or for contractors if the place opens and then a decision has to be made about closing it,” he said.
“I just don’t think it’s fair and reasonable for these kinds of commitments to be made to people when the whole future of the casino is under examination.”
The inquiry will resume on Wednesday with submissions from counsels assisting followed by submissions by barristers representing Crown and Mr Packer’s private company Consolidated Press Holdings.
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