Crown Resorts is under growing pressure to delay the planned December opening of its Sydney high roller casino, Crown Towers at Barangaroo, until the independent Liquor and Gaming Authority decides on its suitability to hold a licence.
Crown chairman Helen Coonan confirmed at the annual general meeting last week that Crown was “on track” to open in mid-December, despite the fact it will not know the outcome of the NSW inquiry being conducted by former supreme court judge Patricia Bergin SC.
While Bergin has made no direct comment, the counsel assisting the inquiry, Naomi Sharp SC, asked Coonan whether the board “has had any discussion regarding the prudence or appropriateness of opening the Crown Sydney casino in mid-December this year given that this suitability review will be reporting after that date”.
Coonan replied that the date was a “matter exercising everyone’s mind” but noted it was not entirely in Crown’s hands because a government milestone required it to open by mid-February 2021.
The December opening appears to have become something of a stalemate between the casino regulator, the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority, and Crown.
The Guardian understands Crown is still planning to proceed with the casino opening unless it is directly told by the gaming authority not to open.
Crown is continuing to recruit staff for its gaming operations on its website and is in regular discussions with the ILGA over other matters including liquor licences for the casino, hotel and restaurant precincts.
Bergin must make her recommendations to the ILGA by 1 February, but it is the ILGA board that makes the final ruling on suitability and Crown argues this could take more time.
There is nothing to prevent Crown opening the hotel and restaurant complex in December, but opening the casino ahead of the ruling could see it then shut down if it’s found unsuitable, or if the ILGA says more measures are needed for Crown to become suitable.
Bergin will hear final submissions next week from counsel assisting the inquiry. They could provide some insight into her possible findings.
Bergin made it clear on the last day of hearings that she wanted to hear arguments on whether Crown, the licensees and any close associates were still suitable to hold the second casino licence in NSW. She wants submissions on what the evidence shows as to criminal links and money laundering.
Then she will move to the second step – whether there are measures that can be taken to make Crown suitable. The measures could include caps on shareholdings, changes to the board or management, better internal controls on risks, enhanced money laundering systems and more scrutiny of junkets.
Lawyers representing Crown and its largest shareholder, James Packer, who holds a 36% stake through his private company, Consolidated Press Holdings, will then make submissions. They are expected to reject a finding of unsuitability and argue change is well underway to make the company suitable. But this process could further delay the opening.
While Crown has said it is implementing new anti-money laundering controls and creating new positions to ensure compliance, ILGA may want to be satisfied that change has occurred.
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