Crown Resorts Victoria casino inquiry told 'delays will not be tolerated'

Ray Finkelstein opens royal commission saying he intends to focus on problem gambling as well as money laundering

The former judge running a royal commission in Victoria into James Packer’s casino group, Crown Resorts, has warned that he will not tolerate delays in producing documents to his inquiry.

Ray Finkelstein said that he intended to meet a tight timeframe set by the premier, Daniel Andrews, and produce his report by 1 August.

“Delays will not be tolerated,” Finkelstein said at a hearing formally opening the commission’s work on Wednesday morning.

He said that in addition to looking into past money laundering and criminal links at Crown’s Melbourne casino, which an inquiry in NSW has already found existed, his commission would look into other issues including whether money laundering continued at the casino and how the company dealt with problem gambling.

Ray Finkelstein opening Victoria’s royal commission into Crown casino.
Ray Finkelstein opening Victoria’s royal commission into Crown casino. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Finkelstein said he wrote to Crown asking it if it accepted the findings of the NSW inquiry, which was run by former supreme court judge Patricia Bergin.

“Crown’s response is a little equivocal,” he said.

The company accepted it was not a suitable associate to run a new casino at Barangaroo in Sydney but did not accept “the wilfulness or deliberateness of the conduct concerned,” Finkelstein said.

He said Crown said it was now suitable to run the Melbourne casino due to a “substantial reform program”.

“The outcome of this inquiry may well depend on the effectiveness of this program,” he said.

He said he wrote a second letter to Crown asking “in plain terms” if it had breached any of its obligations under Victorian law or its contract with the state government to run the Melbourne casino.

A response had yet to be received, he said.

The royal commission, which has a budget of $10m, was called after Bergin found that Crown was not fit to hold a licence to run a new casino complex at Barangaroo, on Sydney’s harbour.

A similar royal commission is also under way in Western Australia.

In her report, tabled in NSW parliament in February, Bergin said Crown facilitated money laundering at its existing casinos in Melbourne and Perth and that junket operators who brought in high-rolling gamblers were linked to organised crime.

Bergin also criticised Crown’s handling of the arrests of 19 staff in China in 2016 on suspicion of illegally promoting gambling.

She said Packer was “deeply flawed” as a casino associate because he either forgot or did not turn his mind to an undertaking Crown made to NSW authorities to exclude the late Hong Kong gambling magnate, Stanley Ho, from involvement in the Barangaroo facility, while selling some of his shares to Hong Kong company Melco Resorts, which is run by Ho’s son Lawrence.

Ho, who died in May last year, was banned from involvement in the Barangaroo casino due to his links with Triad organised crime groups.

As a result of the Bergin inquiry, the NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority has so far refused to let Crown open the Barangaroo casino’s gaming floor, which was due to open its doors in December.

The inquiry has also resulted in a clear-out of Crown’s board and management. Directors Andrew Demetriou and Harold Mitchell, who sat as independents, resigned from the board, as did Guy Jalland, Michael Johnston and John Poynton, who had board positions as nominees of Packer’s Consolidated Press Holdings.

Chief executive Ken Barton also resigned.

Former Howard government minister Helen Coonan is running the company as executive chair.

The fate of Packer’s 36% stake in the company remains up in the air. US private equity group Blackstone, which already owns 10% of Crown, this week launched a takeover bid that, if accepted, would see Packer removed from the share register.

Contributor

Ben Butler

The GuardianTramp

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