A probe into Crown Resorts has recommended the embattled gaming giant be denied a Sydney casino licence, in a crippling blow to its $2.2bn Barangaroo project. In a report tabled to the state parliament, and commissioned by the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) it says Crown Sydney’s casino licence should be revoked after revelations of illegal money laundering within its Melbourne and Perth venues. The report said the James Packer-backed casino was not a suitable licensee holder within the state. The ILGA is now reading through the report to prepare recommendations.
Media reports in 2019 alleged Crown facilitated money laundering activities at its Melbourne and Perth casinos through Asian high-roller junkets, sparking questions over whether it was fit to hold the licence.
Crown’s serious corporate failures included the arrest of employees in China in 2016 “with numerous failures to escalate indicators of real risks to the staff”, the report said.
“Any applicant for a casino licence with the attributes of Crown’s stark realities of facilitating money laundering, exposing staff to the risk of detention in a foreign jurisdiction and pursuing commercial relationships with individuals with connections to triads and organised crime groups would not be confident of a positive outcome,” the report said.
The probe heard Australian Resorts chief executive Barry Felstead was warned in 2015 by the president of international marketing Michael Chen about staff being concerned for their safety and living in “constant fear of getting tapped on the shoulder” as they sought to lure Chinese high rollers to Crown’s Australian casinos. But that information never made it through to the board or risk management committee, and 16 of the employees ended up serving jail time.
The report said “amazingly”, Mr Packer “did not turn his mind to the prospect” of the late Stanley Ho — who allegedly had underworld connections — having an interest in Hong Kong casino giant Melco, which bought a 19.9 per cent interest in Crown. The inquiry heard Mr Packer insisted the Melco deal go through, but it only ended up buying 10 per cent, dumping its plans to buy the second tranche in February last year, then offloading its interest to US private equity giant Blackstone in April.
Earlier on Tuesday, Crown began preparing for a potential investor backlash following the public release of the report, by placing its shares into a trading halt.
Crown said in a statement it intended to make an announcement once the findings from Commissioner Patricia Bergin were made public on Tuesday afternoon.
NSW Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello told reporters he would table the ILGA report after question time.
“At the heart of the report is a relationship between organised crime, money laundering and gambling. And more importantly what steps we can do to protect the community against these sinister elements,” Mr Dominello said.
That method of publishing means the report’s findings will fall under parliamentary privilege, protecting any MPs discussing the information from potential defamation lawsuits.
Much of the long-running inquiry focused on a room at the Melbourne venue exclusively used by Suncity – Macau’s biggest junket operator – with leaked footage showing huge wads of cash being exchanged for gambling chips. While Crown executives rejected accusations of “turning a blind eye” to the activity, an explosive last-minute revelation came from Crown counsel Robert Craig during closing submissions that incensed Ms Bergin.
Mr Craig revealed two independent reports had concluded “cuckoo smurfing” — a form of money laundering where large transactions are split into small transactions in a bid to disguise them — could be seen in the accounts of two Crown subsidiaries.
“There was no notice of any of this,” Ms Bergin said in response.
“It just seems to me to be rather unsatisfactory.
“This material should have been produced last year or at the beginning in February when the material was summonsed.”
At the company’s annual general meeting in October, after a large number of Crown executives gave evidence to the inquiry, chair Helen Coonan “unreservedly apologised” for “governance and risk management failings”.
The company insisted in closing submissions the board had taken action to rectify them, including “board renewal”.
The inquiry also heard that as Crown’s biggest shareholder with a 36 per cent stake, reclusive billionaire James Packer was given special treatment — getting privileged information through a controlling shareholder protocol agreement — despite quitting the board in 2018.
The agreement was terminated during the inquiry, so it was now a “stock standard” relationship, Crown’s lead lawyer Neil Young said.
Counsel assisting the inquiry had argued Mr Packer should have no association with the Barangaroo venue at all due to prior poor behaviour.
In his testimony, Mr Packer admitted to threatening a businessman over a deal in 2015, and acknowledged the conduct was “shameful” and “disgraceful” but blamed it on his bipolar disorder.
The inquiry heard most of Crown’s directors were hand-picked by Mr Packer and it was suggested he was the driving force behind the company’s push to secure more of the junket market.
ILGA delayed the planned December opening of the Barangaroo casino but Crown was granted an interim liquor licence for certain non-gaming operations including the Crown Towers hotel, bars and some restaurants.