James Packer’s Crown Resorts has been found unsuitable to hold a casino licence at Barangaroo in Sydney but should be given an opportunity to make sweeping changes to make itself suitable, a much awaited report has found.
A report written by former New South Wales supreme court judge, Patricia Bergin SC, said the evidence money laundering, Crown’s operations in China which led to arrests of its staff in 2016, and its associations with junket operators with possible organised crime links made the company and its controllers unsuitable.
She has said it is open to the regulator, the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority, to suggest ways Crown could keep its licence.
Bergin also said the NSW gaming regulator would be justified in not having confidence in Crown chief executive Ken Barton and non-executive director Andrew Demetriou.
She said Packer was “deeply flawed” as a casino associate because he either forgot or did not turn his mind to an undertaking Crown made to NSW authorities to exclude the late Hong Kong gambling magnate, Stanley Ho, from the company’s new casino at Barangaroo in Sydney.
But she left consideration of whether he was an appropriate person to be involved with the casino to the ILGA, which she said could also consider threats he made to a businessman in 2015.
Bergin said ways Crown could make itself suitable to hold a license include a major overhaul of the board, and a set of binding undertakings from Crown to reform its business and implement enhanced controls to prevent money laundering at its casinos.
She has stopped short of recommending that Packer should divest himself of his shareholding but recommended that new controls were needed to prevent him exercising control.
“The Authority would need to be assured and be confident that there are no further arrangements that would facilitate a return to what was clearly a dysfunctional environment,” she said, referring to Packer’s informal control of Crown.
The inquiry heard evidence that despite stepping down as chairman and a director, Packer continued to play a key role in Crown and received regular briefings from management.
Bergin has canvassed the idea of shareholding caps for casino operators in her broader report on future casino regulation.
“It is suggested that in the circumstances of the findings against [the chief executive] Mr Barton, Mr [Michael] Johnston and Mr Demetriou [both board members], the Authority would be justified in entertaining very serious doubts that Crown could be converted into a suitable person under the Casino Control Act whilst they remain as directors,” she said.
She said Harold Mitchell may also need to leave depending on the outcome of his appeal relating to his behaviour as a director at Tennis Australia.
She also suggested Crown be required to provide the Authority with a detailed written remediation action plan and undertakings in respect of matters including governance, independent review, accountability and any other relevant matters that the Authority may require of it.
She also pointed to the culture of Crown.
“There is no doubt that some of the evidence in which the very serious problems were exposed came as a great surprise to the Crown directors. There is also no doubt that some, but certainly not others, had their confidence dented by this exposure,” she said.
She said the “stark realities” were that between 2014 and 2019 “Crown facilitated money laundering” through bank accounts held by two subsidiaries, “unchecked and unchanged in the face of warnings from its bankers”.
Turning to the fate of Crown staff arrested in China for promoting gambling, she said that between 2014 and 2016 “Crown disregarded the welfare of its China-based staff putting them at risk of detention by pursuing an aggressive sales policy and failing to escalate risks through the appropriate corporate risk management structures”.
And on junkets, she said that “in the period 2012 to 2020 Crown entered into and/or continued commercial relationships with junket operators who had links to Triads and other organised crime groups”.
“These are not historical deficiencies. They are very clear and present problems,” she said.
The Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority, which has the formal say over the fate of the licence, said it would consider the report at a special board meeting on Friday and at its regular monthly meeting on 17 February.
“It will take time for the authority to give it proper consideration before determining the most appropriate course of action,” the ILGA chair, Philip Crawford, said.
“It is not appropriate for the Authority to comment on any of the report’s findings or content until this process is completed.”
Crown shares were placed in a trading halt on Tuesday morning. The company said it was “currently considering the inquiry report”.
“Crown will work with the New South Wales Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) in relation to the findings and recommendations of the Inquiry Report as contemplated by the regulatory agreements between Crown, ILGA and the State of New South Wales,” the company said in a statement.
The high roller casino at Barangaroo, in the $2bn Barangaroo tower, was due to open in December, but remains shuttered although restaurants in the complex have opened.
Bergin has also made recommendations about reform of casino regulation in NSW including suggesting a stand alone Independent Casino commission with the powers of a royal commission.
Responsibility of oversight of casinos in NSW currently rests in an authority which is part of the department and which also deals with liquor licensing of hotels and clubs.
She also wants a new objective in the act: “Ensuring that all licensed casinos prevent any money laundering activities within their casino operations.”
The 800 page report will also have implications for Crown’s licences in Victoria for Crown Melbourne and for Perth’s Crown resort.
The Victorian authorities have brought forward a five-year review into Crown Melbourne and are expected to move quickly on their own course of action.
Bergin’s inquiry began in August 2019 but hearings were interrupted by the coronavirus crisis.
It heard evidence of money laundering at Crown’s casinos and alleged criminal involvement in the junkets that operated rooms where high rollers, frequently brought in from overseas, gambled.
While giving evidence, Packer admitted that while a director of Crown he made “shameful” and “disgraceful” threats against a businessman that brought discredit on the company.
He said that at the time the threats were made, in 2015, he was dealing with serious illness and he was now “being treated for my bipolar”.
The target of the threats was not named in the hearings but has been identified as Ben Gray, who at the time was involved in talks to take Crown private.
In closing submissions, counsel assisting the inquiry, Adam Bell SC, said the threats were a reason why Packer should no longer be considered suitable to be a close associate of Crown.
Bell said Packer was also acting as a de facto director of Crown during periods of time when he was not on the board.
A secret controlling shareholder protocol, under which Packer continued to receive information about Crown’s operations even after he left the board, opened the company to an extraordinary level of influence by Packer, Bell said.
Bell and his colleagues, Naomi Sharp SC and Scott Aspinall, said that based on the evidence heard during the inquiry Crown itself was also no longer suitable to hold a casino license.
“In summary, we submit that the evidence presented to this inquiry demonstrates that the licensee is not a suitable person to continue to give effect to the licence and that Crown Resorts is not a suitable person to be a close associate of the licensee,” Bell said in his closing submissions.
The inquiry heard that Packer was closely involved in the VIP gambling business, which included the junket program.
“Mr Packer set a dubious tone from the top in relation to junkets,” Sharp said during her closing address.
He “drove a culture that put the pursuit of profits above all else,” she said.
Aspinall said the evidence showed “a culture within Crown during the period that we will look at that either facilitates money laundering or is recklessly indifferent to whether or not it occurs”.
“That in my submission is wholly unsuitable for a person who holds the privileged position of a licensee in this state,” he said in his closing address.
Independent NSW MP Justin Field, who has led a push for reform of casino laws in NSW, has called on the NSW Government and Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority to terminate Crown Resort’s Barangaroo casino licence following the release of a damning report from the Bergin Inquiry.
“The Barangaroo casino licence should be terminated immediately. Both Crown Resorts and the licensee have been found to be unsuitable to hold a casino licence in NSW and the depth of the failures at Crown to address money laundering risks and “poor governance” and “deficient risk management” make them unlikely to be suitable in the near term,” he said.