Crown Resorts’ new $2.2 billion gambling mecca at Barangaroo may never open its doors after an independent inquiry found that the James Packer-backed group is unfit to hold a casino licence in NSW.
Former Supreme Court judge Patricia Bergin said in her 750-page final report released on Tuesday afternoon following an 18-month probe into the company that Crown needed a management overhaul if it ever wanted to hold a casino licence, and that the state’s gambling regulator should reconsider Mr Packer’s involvement.
Commissioner Bergin said an examination of a 2019 expose by the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes into Crown that sparked the inquiry confirmed Crown had “facilitated money laundering” through its bank accounts; “disregarded the welfare” of its staff in China before 19 were arrested there in 2016, and went into business with high-roller junket tour groups linked to Triad and other organised crime groups.
This made Crown unsuitable to hold a casino licence with its core problem being “poor corporate governance, deficient risk management structures and processes and a poor corporate culture”.
“One of the difficulties for Crown was its unjustified belief in itself and its unwillingness to entertain the prospect that there was any force in any of the [allegations raised in the media],” Commissioner Bergin wrote.
The findings will heap pressure on governments Victoria and WA to act on Crown’s casinos in Melbourne and Perth, where the behaviour that rendered it unsuitable occurred. The recommendations are not binding, and the NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority will meet later this month to consider which, if any, it should implement.
Commissioner Bergin said it was obvious that Crown’s 36 per cent shareholder James Packer exercised the “real power” at the company which had “disastrous consequences for the company”.
She said ILGA should consider his approval as a “close associate” of Crown in light of the explosive revelation that he sent a threatening email to a Melbourne businessman in 2015. Mr Packer said his behaviour was a result of his bi-polar disorder.
Commissioner Bergin recommended NSW put an ownership cap in place so any investor will need the NSW regulator’s approval to buy or own more than 10 per cent of a casino operator, opening up the possibility of it ordering Mr Packer to sell down his stake in the company.
Crown was set to open the gaming floors of its $2.2 billion resort at Barangaroo in late December but the authority blocked it from commencing gaming operations after the group admitted to the inquiry that criminals probably laundered money at its Melbourne and Perth casinos.
Commissioner Bergin said it was unlikely Crown could ever be deemed fit while chief executive Ken Barton remains in the top job. Mr Barton, who was a long-standing finance boss before being appointed CEO in January last year, was “no match for what is needed at the helm of a casino” in light of his “totally inexplicable” failure to act on money laundering concerns and “appalling” decision to mislead minority shareholders about what financial information he shared with Mr Packer.
Former AFL boss and Crown director Andrew Demetriou would also have to exit following his “unedifying performance” at the inquiry along with long time Packer family lieutenant Michael Johnston, whose dual loyalties created conflicts of interest and blurred reporting lines.
Commissioner Bergin said Crown’s reformation to become suitable would also require a “full and wide-ranging forensic audit of all of their accounts to ensure that the criminal elements that infiltrated [two bank accounts linked to Crown] have not infiltrated any other accounts”.
The report calls on NSW establish the Independent Casino Commission, a “dedicated, stand-alone, specialist casino regulator with the necessary framework to meet the extant and emerging risks for gaming and casinos”.
Commissioner Bergin found that Mr Packer’s agreement to sell a 20 per cent stake in Crown to Hong Kong’s Melco Resorts – a major focus of the inquiry – did not breach Crown’s NSW licence.
Crown said in a statement that it was considering the report and would work with the NSW government and ILGA in relation to the findings and recommendations. A spokesman for Mr Packer’s private company, CPH, said it would consider the report before making any comment.
Crown put its ASX-listed shares into a trading halt on Tuesday morning ahead of the report’s release.
Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello, who oversees the regulation of gambling in the state, said the report “raises serious issues relating to organised crime and money laundering in our community”, and the government would consider the recommendations carefully.
Andrew Wilkie, independent MP for the federal seat of Clark in Tasmania, has seized on the findings of the Bergin report to push for Crown Resorts to face inquiries into its casino licences in Victoria and Western Australia.
“Surely it’s self-evident that Commissioner Bergin’s findings mean the company is unfit to continue to operate any casino in Australia,” he said.
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