Crown’s casino must not open while criminal risk remains


The NSW gaming authority’s decision to block the opening of the new Crown casino at Barangaroo – albeit temporarily, for now – might be a blow to the CBD’s hopes for a quick revival after COVID-19 but it was also inevitable.

The evidence presented to an inquiry chaired by Patricia Bergin, SC, has been nothing short of gobsmacking.

Many had hoped the city might use the gala event of a casino opening to help get its mojo back. The pandemic has turned the city precinct from a night time hotspot into a ghost town. New Year’s Eve celebrations will be muted, with limited numbers and admission by permit only.

Yet the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA), which is considering whether Crown is fit to hold a casino licence, had no choice but to temporarily suspend the opening in light of the evidence of the past few months and, especially, the past week.


The inquiry was convened to investigate the sale of a stake in crown to a Macau-based business with links to Stanley Ho, an alleged underworld figure, as well as allegations raised by the Herald that Crown was turning a blind eye to signs that organised crime was using its casinos in Melbourne and Perth to launder money.

While Crown and its controlling shareholder billionaire James Packer denied the Herald’s reports at the time and since, painstakingly assembled evidence has revealed Crown’s failure to implement basic anti-money laundering protocols, as well as its use of so-called “junket operators”, who brought rich Chinese gamblers to its tables in Australia.

In final submissions this week, Crown has pleaded to be allowed to keep its licence despite these problems and open as planned.

Yet clear evidence has emerged that Crown, which has had little or no changes to its board makeup or management since the allegations were first raised, has failed to co-operate fully with the inquiry. ILGA chairman Philip Crawford said Crown was not “picking up the vibe”.

What especially frustrated Ms Bergin and the ILGA was that after months of stonewalling, Crown changed its tune at the 11th hour and tendered new statements at 11pm on Tuesday night, days before the inquiry’s public hearings concluded. In them, it admitted that it was likely two Crown accounts had been used by criminals to launder proceeds of crime. Crown said the accounts were used for “cuckoo smurfing”, criminal jargon for a form of money laundering.

The inquiry has heard that ANZ bank closed the accounts in 2014 after they were used for a series of cash deposits indicative of money laundering. But Crown did not review the suspicious transactions, instead just opened new accounts with the Commonwealth Bank.

The admission raises questions about Crown’s claim that it has learnt from the past and tightened its compliance with anti-money laundering laws.

The inquiry was announced a year ago but Crown says it did not conduct its own investigation into the use of the accounts, saying it was given legal advice not to investigate itself. Ms Bergin rightly questioned what basis there could be for such advice.

Crown failure’s to examine its own operations has wasted a lot of time and taxpayer money at the inquiry. More importantly, the Crown board cannot credibly claim to have fixed the problems in its internal processes if it has not conducted a serious investigation of what went wrong. It cannot hide behind legal advice.

Until Crown conducts such a post mortem, the ILGA should not allow it to operate in NSW.

Allowing Crown to trade before the final report comes out in February could leave the door open to money laundering for drugs, child sexual exploitation, people trafficking and even terrorism.

It is extraordinary that authorities in Victoria and WA, where the problems occurred, have been slow to act. The Victorian Liquor and Gaming Authority has threatened to fine Crown for working with inappropriate junkets. But the VCGLR is otherwise playing catchup and this week demanded Crown hand over the new evidence of likely money laundering which happened under the regulator’s watch. There is no sign of a broader reassessment of Crown’s right to operate its Melbourne casino, where most of the malfeasance that has so concerned the NSW authority occurred.

Crown is now expected to open the non-casino parts of its Barangaroo site next month, which will certainly be a blow to its finances and to the nightlife of Sydney.

But this is an industry which attracts organised crime all over the world. Crown has failed to prove it has the systems in place to manage that risk.

The Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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