The reclusive billionaire has not been called to give evidence at the Crown Resorts royal commission in Perth, but that could change.
The reclusive billionaire has not been called to give evidence at the Crown Resorts royal commission in Perth, but that could change.

Packer spared royal commission grilling

James Packer has not been called to give evidence at the royal commission in Western Australia that is digging into evidence Crown Resorts facilitated money laundering at its Perth casino.

The probe, along with a separate royal commission in Victoria, comes after a NSW gaming regulator inquiry concluded evidence showed the company turned a blind eye to money laundering at its Perth and Melbourne venues and it partnered with Asian junket tour operators with links to organised crime.

At the second hearing in WA on Tuesday, which was purely administrative, applications for leave to appear were granted for Crown chair Helen Coonan, non-executive director Jane Halton - who both came out of the NSW inquiry relatively unscathed - and former independent director John Horvath.

At the company's annual general meeting in October, many votes were lodged against the re-election of Professor Horvath - previously a personal physician to Mr Packer's late father Kerry Packer and a chief medical officer of Australia.

But he was saved by the backing of the reclusive billionaire's private firm Consolidated Press Holdings, which holds the biggest stake in Crown of 37 per cent.

There was no application for Mr Packer to appear at the Perth royal commission, but that could change.

Findings from the Victorian royal commission are expected by August 1. Picture: NCA NewsWire/David Crosling
Findings from the Victorian royal commission are expected by August 1. Picture: NCA NewsWire/David Crosling

 

When he gave evidence over two days at the NSW probe - via video link from a luxury yacht - it emerged he had been heavily medicated for bipolar disorder, and he claimed he did not recall in response to many questions.

Commissioner Patricia Bergin found his enduring influence over Crown - despite quitting the board in 2018 - had had "disastrous consequences for the company".

She heard he had been the driving force behind the push to secure more of the Asian high-roller market at the centre of the scandal, with one of the most dire consequences of that aggressive marketing being the 2016 arrest of Crown staffers in China, where gambling on the mainland is illegal.

He also got special treatment, with briefings on an almost daily basis under a "controlling shareholder protocol".

But that has since been torn up, and the NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority has sought to formally block any influence he may still have over Crown, getting him to agree to multiple undertakings that are expected to be recorded in an enforceable legal document.

The regulator has not sought to compel Mr Packer to sell his stake, but he has two potential avenues for that: a takeover bid by Blackstone and a $3bn offer by another private equity giant, Oaktree Capital Management, to help Crown Resorts buy him out.

The board has not yet issued a view on either proposal.

The WA royal commission will hand down an interim report by June 30, with the final report following by November 14.
The WA royal commission will hand down an interim report by June 30, with the final report following by November 14.

 

Mr Packer has in recent years been retreating from public business life. He has engaged investment bank Moelis Australia to advise him on Blackstone's offer, and his complete exit from Crown is widely seen as a big way the company can redeem itself.

ILGA ultimately found Crown was not suitable to hold a gaming licence for its new $2.2bn Barangaroo casino in Sydney, and the Perth and Melbourne licences are also at risk.

However, the company has been trying to restore confidence in its ability to operate casinos in accordance with anti-money laundering laws by changing its board, which has largely been gutted.

One of the new appointees, the former chief executive of rival SkyCity Entertainment Group, Nigel Morrison, will also give evidence at the WA royal commission, which is not just looking into Crown's suitability to hold a gaming licence but also the regulatory framework.

To that end, former WA Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries deputy director general Michael Connolly, who stepped aside after it emerged he had regular fishing trips with Crown staff, will also appear but is "limited to regulatory framework issues".

The department's director general Duncan Ord has previously said Mr Connolly had declared the long-term friendships and that he stood aside merely to avoid any "perception of a conflict of interest".

Originally published as Packer spared royal commission grilling



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