Crown Resorts: inquiry to examine whether James Packer's casino group fit to hold licence

Former judge also asked to report on whether NSW gambling laws need to be overhauled

A public inquiry into allegations of wrongdoing at casinos run by Crown Resorts will decide whether the James Packer-dominated group is fit to hold a licence in New South Wales and whether the state’s gambling laws need to be overhauled.

Terms of reference, released by the NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority on Thursday, show the inquiry, to be headed by former judge Patricia Bergin, will also investigate whether Packer’s decision to sell almost 20% of Crown to Hong Kong billionaire Lawrence Ho breached the gambling group’s licence to build a high-roller casino at Barangaroo in Sydney.

If she finds Crown or its NSW subsidiary is not fit to hold the Barangaroo licence, she is to decide “what, if any, changes would be required to render those persons suitable”.

At stake for Crown is the $1bn Barangaroo casino, currently under construction near the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which Packer proposed back in 2012 as part of a bid to lure international VIP gamblers to Australia.

But Crown’s rival Star, which runs Sydney’s existing casino, will be watching the inquiry closely because Bergin has also been asked to report on whether NSW’s licensing laws are fit for purpose “in an environment of growing complexity of both extant and emerging risks for gaming and casinos”.

Packer has already sold about 10% of Crown to Ho but ahead of the release of the terms of reference of the inquiry the two billionaires announced the transfer of the remaining stake was on ice awaiting the outcome of the NSW inquiry and approval from state authorities in Victoria and Western Australia.

Bergin has been asked to look into allegations published by Nine newspapers and on the media company’s TV current affairs show 60 Minutes that Crown or its “agents, affiliates or subsidiaries engaged in money laundering; breached gambling laws; and partnered with junket operators with links to drug traffickers, money launderers, human traffickers and organised crime groups”.

She has also been asked to decide whether Ho or other key players who are to become associates of Crown as a result of the sale “have any business association with any person, body or association who is not of good repute, having regard to character, honesty, integrity, or has undesirable or unsatisfactory financial sources”.

A provision in the Barangaroo licence bans Lawrence Ho’s father Stanley Ho, along with some other members of the Ho family and a number of companies associated with them, from being involved with Barangaroo.

Stanley Ho has been accused of links with triad organised crime gangs but has always denied the allegation.

The ban list was secret until 8 August, when it was tabled in NSW parliament following a request from independent upper house MP Justin Field.

It revealed that Lawrence Ho was a director of a company banned from involvement in Barangaroo at the time he agreed to buy 20% of Crown from Packer.

The document also raised questions about Melco’s suitability to be involved in the project because of the presence in the group’s corporate structure of another banned entity, Great Respect.

Within hours of the document being tabled, the NSW government announced the Bergin investigation, which has most of the powers of a royal commission.

Crown said it was examining the terms of reference and would cooperate with the inquiry.

Earlier, Ho and Packer put their $1.75bn share deal on hold until regulators in three Australian states approve the deal.

In May, Ho’s Melco Resorts group agreed to pay Packer’s private company, Consolidated Press Holdings (CPH), $1.75bn for almost 20% of Crown.

The deal was to be completed in two tranches. The first half of the shares changed hands in early June and the other half was due to go across on 30 September.

At the time the deal was unveiled, Melco said it “does not require regulatory approval to be consummated”.

However, an updated sale agreement, filed with the Australian stock exchange on Thursday morning, now contains a condition requiring a letter from authorities in New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria stating Melco “is a suitable person to be associated with the management of a casino, each such notification being unconditional, or on conditions acceptable to the buyer acting reasonably”.

Since the sale was announced Crown has been rocked by allegations of links to money-laundering operations, organised crime influence and special treatment at the border for high-roller gamblers.

Meanwhile, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation, which oversees Crown’s flagship Melbourne casino, has told the state government it needs more time to reexamine the allegations raised in media reports.

“The matters are complex and therefore require additional time to thoroughly review,” Victoria’s consumer affairs minister, Marlene Kairouz, said.

In a statement, CPH said although it “does not consider there has been any breach of agreement, licence condition or legislation in connection with the subject matter of the transactions with Melco, it has taken this step in agreement with Melco so the regulatory processes and Ilga [Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority] inquiry can proceed in an appropriate manner”.

Melco told the US Nasdaq exchange, where it is listed, that it and “CPH have agreed to allow more time for the relevant Australian regulatory processes to be completed before completing the acquisition of the remaining 67,675,000 shares of Crown”.

Melco said the closing date had been extended to 60 business days “following the completion of the relevant Australian regulatory processes”.

The company said there was a “sunset date” of 31 May next year after which either side could walk away from the transaction.

Either side could extend the sunset date by six months, it said.

Contributor

Ben Butler

The GuardianTramp

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