In retrospect, the advertisement must seem ill-advised to those who signed it, including former Liberal minister and Crown chair Helen Noonan as well as directors John Alexander, former AFL boss Andrew Demetriou, former Australian chief medical officer John Horvath and former top public servant Jane Halton (now on the national COVID-19 commission).
As reported this week, Crown’s chief legal officer Joshua Preston has conceded the advertisement and the ASX statement contained at least one glaring inaccuracy and probably more. Crown claimed that its high-roller partner, Suncity was controlled by a reputable and regulated listed company in Hong Kong. Police have already privately debunked this, concluding that Suncity is in fact controlled by a private company run by suspected triad crime bosses.
The multi-billion dollar Suncity partnership has been a focus of the ongoing inquiry presided over by Justice Patricia Bergin. The inquiry has discovered that Crown’s links to criminals and anti-money laundering measures are at least as bad as reported.
For instance, Crown continued its partnership with Suncity despite two due diligence reports warning that the Hong Kong company was run by a former member of the 14K organised crime Triad in Macau and that the US government considered him to have criminal links. Crown Melbourne even maintained the links, including a private gaming parlour for Suncity’s exclusive use, after the discovery of $5.6 million in cash stored in a cupboard – an incident that Preston said sent “money-laundering alarms ringing”. The inquiry has also heard Crown failed to act on its own reports that raised red flags, and those of anti-money laundering agency AUSTRAC.
Evidence before the inquiry has confirmed the revelation in our reporting that Crown opened accounts with the Commonwealth Bank that used “misleading” names to mask their use for gambling. The gaming giant accepted high-risk cash deposits into those accounts even though ANZ had shut down similar accounts over money-laundering concerns.
Crown’s senior managers stumbled under questioning about how the company failed to act on repeated warning signs that it was in business with gangsters and had exposed its staff to arrest and incarceration in China as part of an attempt, illegal under Chinese law, to supercharge its high-roller program.
But Crown’s board should also be in the stand. Crown picked some of these directors because of their impressive public reputations, perhaps to inoculate itself against precisely the sort of questions now being asked.
Rather than signing the advertisement and ASX statement, the directors should have been more focussed on doing all they could to discover how Crown had formed high-roller business partnerships with suspected Triad crime bosses and alleged sex traffickers, and how its managers had opened bank accounts likely to have been used to launder dirty money.
Now their reputations are on the line, a point the Bergin inquiry has flagged as it looks at how and why the “message from the board” advertisement was written and signed off. The inquiry seems determined to hold Crown’s board to account and to also call its key shareholder, James Packer, as Justice Bergin examines how much influence he had over the company and its high-roller operations.
The inquiry will likely also call for an overhaul of the way casinos are regulated in Australia, with a focus on new laws to ensure more is done to keep organised crime out of the high-roller rooms. But this should not just be the work of an inquiry in NSW when Crown’s main casinos are in Melbourne and Perth.
The Victorian gaming regulator, led by Catherine Myers since 2015, has by any measure failed to do its job. The regulator (VCLGR), which until recently laboured under the oversight of the former gaming minister and accused branch-stacker Marlene Kairouz, must be hoping that no one connects the revelations that Crown’s operations enabled organised crime with the regulator’s decade-long failure to adequately oversee its operations.
Try as it might to blame weak laws, or law enforcement agencies (who mostly have also been missing in action when it comes to policing Crown), the regulator’s longstanding “hands off” approach left Crown with few incentives to improve governance to ensure it met its social licence to minimise the harm its operations cause our community.
Put simply, Crown felt it could operate with impunity. And the Bergin inquiry is showing in painstaking detail that, for years, it did just that.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won nine Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.