A report into Crown Resorts’ suitability to hold a casino license in the state of NSW for its AU$2.2 billion (US$1.6 billion) Crown Sydney development has found the Australian gaming giant and its local licensee unsuitable.
However, there may be scope for Crown to become suitable by rendering meaningful change.
The long-awaited Bergin Report, comprising 751 pages, was made public Tuesday following completion of an inquiry into allegations of money laundering in Crown’s casinos, and that it had breached its NSW casino license by agreeing to sell a 19.99% stake in the company to Macau casino operator Melco Resorts & Entertainment. The inquiry focused heavily on alleged ties by Crown’s junket partners to Asian crime syndicates as well as the 2016 arrests of Crown Resorts staff for the illegal promotion of gambling in mainland China.
Commissioner Patricia Bergin states in her report, “Any applicant for a casino license with the attributes of Crown’s stark realities of facilitating money laundering, exposing staff to the risk of detention in a foreign jurisdiction and pursuing commercial relationships with individuals with connections to Triads and organized crime groups would not be confident of a positive outcome. It is obvious that such attributes would render an applicant quite unsuitable to hold a casino license in New South Wales.
“These facts and the stark realities … may also suggest that it is obvious that the Licensee is not suitable to continue to give effect to the Barangaroo License and that Crown is not suitable to be a close associate of the Licensee … they may also present as an irresistible death knell for the Crown Board’s continued existence as it is presently constituted.”
Bergin went on to observe that the questions posed for report to the Authority address only suitability to hold a casino license and suitability to be closely associated with a license holder and that, “The ultimate decision of whether a license might be cancelled, suspended or made conditional is exquisitely a matter for the expertise of the [NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming] Authority.”
Bergin did leave the door open for Crown to undertake meaningful change and restore its suitability to hold a licence in NSW. She said, “If Crown is to survive this turmoil and convert itself into a company that can be regarded as a suitable person and achieve the same for the Licensee, … it could achieve a fresh start and emerge a very much stronger and better organisation.
“One of the mechanisms that could be used … to work towards conversion to suitability is for Crown to provide the Authority with a detailed written remediation action plan and undertakings in respect of matters including governance, independent review, accountability and any other relevant matters that the Authority may require of it. It would be appropriate to ensure that such an action plan and undertaking is in the form of an enforceable undertaking.
“Another mechanism that may be used by the Authority is the consensual imposition of conditions on the Licence.“
She also pointed to Crown severing relationships with junkets, “The Authority understands that Crown has announced that it is not going to deal with any Junket operators unless they are licensed or regulated by the Authority. Should it be the case that no such regulatory regime is put in place, the Authority would need to be satisfied that Crown continues to adhere to [this].“
However, Bergin did not hold back in her criticism of Crown’s corporate culture and indeed individuals in Crown’s leadership.
“One of the difficulties for Crown was its unjustified belief in itself and its unwillingness to entertain the prospect that there was any force in any of the Media Allegations. This was described in some of the Public Hearings as corporate ’arrogance’ … it is an apt description of some of the public responses to the Media Allegations and the lack of proper attention to the needs of the Company in light of them …
“ … [I]f Mr Jalland and/or Mr Johnston remain as directors it will be necessary to have some additional protections from them because of their failures to have regard to the undertaking that was previously given by Crown in respect of the late Mr Stanley Ho.“ These undertakings were in relation to preventing associations between Crown Resorts and Dr Stanley Ho or entities related to Dr Ho.
“The conversion to suitability will require a restructure of the Crown Board and the Board of the Licensee. It is suggested that in the circumstances of the findings against Mr Barton, Mr Johnston and Mr Demetriou, the Authority would be justified in entertaining very serious doubts that Crown could be converted into a suitable person under the Casino Control Act whilst they remain as directors; or that the Licensee could be converted into a suitable person under the Casino Control Act whilst Mr Barton remains as a director.“
Notably, the report does not find the sale of shares by James Packer to Melco Resorts to be in breach of Crown’s NSW casino license.
However, it does recommend the establishment of a new regulatory body, the Independent Casino Commission (ICC), as “an independent, dedicated, stand-alone, specialist casino regulator with the necessary framework to meet the extant and emerging risks for gaming and casinos.” The ICC would have the powers of a standing Royal Commission, comprised of members who are “suitably qualified to meet the complexities of casino regulation in the modern environment.”
The report also calls for a raft of amendments to the NSW Casino Control Act, among them a ban on any casinos in NSW from dealing with junket operators.
In an announcement of its own, the NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority said it would consider the report at a special meeting to be held this Friday 12 February, and again at its regular monthly board meeting on 17 February, before arriving at any concrete decision on Crown’s casino license.
“The report is detailed and complex. It will take time for the Authority to give it proper consideration before determining the most appropriate course of action,” said Authority Chair Philip Crawford.
“It is not appropriate for the Authority to comment on any of the report’s findings or content until this process is completed.
“It is critical that the management and operation of casinos in NSW are free from criminal influence or exploitation.”