James Packer influence on Crown ‘disastrous’, but mental illness meds ‘complicate’ inquiry assessment
James Packer was spared a lot of personal criticism in Crown’s money laundering inquiry findings, but his influence over the casino giant “had rather disastrous consequences”.
The reclusive billionaire’s private investment vehicle Consolidated Press Holdings is the gambling company’s biggest shareholder with a 36.8 per cent stake and has yielded great clout over the board, management and operations.
That is expected to have ceased with the swift departure of all three CPH nominees from the Crown board the day after a near year-long inquiry by the NSW gaming regulator handed down damning findings about organised crime-linked money laundering at its Perth and Melbourne casinos.
The scandal has already led to the planned December opening of Crown’s new $2.2 billion venue at Barangaroo in Sydney to be put on hold, with the inquiry recommending the gaming licence be revoked in light of the bombshell revelations.
The massive development could prove a white elephant for Crown, given NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority chair Philip Crawford told ABC radio on Thursday that the company “haven’t operated in this state yet and they may never”.
But he gave the Australian Securities Exchange-listed organisation some hope, encouraging it to continue the board overhaul, saying more heads need to roll before the liquor licence for Crown Sydney expires in April.
For Mr Packer – who got special briefings on an almost daily basis under a “controlling shareholder protocol” that has now been axed – there’s a chance he will have to reduce his interest.
Among her many recommendations, inquiry commissioner Patricia Bergin suggested preventing an entity from acquiring, holding or transferring an interest of 10 per cent or more in a casino licensee without the prior approval of a new dedicated regulator, which would have the powers of a royal commission.
But the former judge was rather sparing when it came to personally criticising Mr Packer, who gave testimony to the inquiry, remotely via video link, revealing he suffers from bipolar disorder.
The inquiry report said it was clear his influence “and his capacity to remotely manoeuvre aspects of Crown’s operations” despite quitting the board in 2018 – both through his own direct communications and by inserting Michael Johnston in managerial positions to assist him – “although obviously well-intentioned, had rather disastrous consequences for the company”.
The inquiry heard Mr Packer was the driving force behind the push to secure more of the high-roller ‘junket’ market – with a particularly shocking consequence of that being the arrest of 19 employees in China in 2016 as the nation cracked down on gambling, which is illegal on the mainland.
“The corporate needs of Crown were not given precedence over the corporate needs or desires of CPH,” the report read.
“It is obvious that the real power was exercised by Mr Packer both by reason of his personality and also the somewhat supine attitude adopted by Crown’s operatives.”
The effects of that combination permeated Crown’s operations in China and its junket operator choices, the report read.
It also permeated the ill-fated sale of some of CPH’s stake in Crown to Hong Kong gaming giant Melco – which has links to the late Stanley Ho, who allegedly had underworld connections – and “the total blackout of information” relating to two bank accounts the ill-gotten money percolated through.
The report said “amazingly”, Mr Packer “did not turn his mind to the prospect” Mr Ho had an interest in Melco, with the inquiry hearing he was insistent the deal go through.
Arguably, the most personally tarnishing evidence at the inquiry was Mr Packer threatening a mysterious businessman – whose name was not revealed – in emails in 2015.
It was submitted the “very serious threat … demonstrates a flaw in his character such as to adversely affect his integrity”.
On the witness stand, he admitted the conduct was shameful and disgraceful but blamed his mental health problems, saying he had been on strong prescription medication for years.
That complicated the assessment of whether Mr Packer was forgetful or not, the report read.
Mr Packer expressed the belief the medication “impaired my ability to recall past events including in relation to the period I was a director of Crown”.
That also included forgetting the provisions of regulatory agreements aimed at ensuring Mr Ho or any of his associates acquired an interest in the company.
Whether it was Mr Packer’s “forgetfulness or failing to turn one’s mind” to ensuring casinos remain free from criminal influence, either was a “deeply flawed attribute” that “must surely be intolerable”, the report read.
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