26/07/2021 - 07:23

Crown inquiry to heat up

26/07/2021 - 07:23

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The Perth Casino Royal Commission resumes this week and for the first time will question people who oversaw Crown Resorts’ Western Australian operations.

The Perth Casino Royal Commission resumes this week and for the first time will question people who oversaw Crown Resorts’ Western Australian operations.

Under the leadership of retired judge Neville Owen, the WA hearings follow shocking revelations in the Sydney and Melbourne casino inquiries.

Mr Owen will make an opening address today, ahead of three witnesses.

The first witness, to be called on Wednesday, will be former Crown Resorts director John Poynton, who was also chair of Burswood Ltd, which trades as Crown Perth.

He will be followed by Seven West Media’s WA boss Maryna Fewster, who has been a director of Crown Perth for two years.

The third witness will be Tim Roberts, who was a director of Crown Perth for 13 years up to June 2019.

The inquiry will focus on Crown’s suitability to hold its WA casino licence.

NSW’s Bergin inquiry has already concluded Crown was not a suitable party to hold a casino licence in that state, after revelations its Perth and Melbourne casinos had links to organised crime and had been used for money laundering.

And last week, counsel assisting the Victorian royal commission, Adrian Finanzio SC, reached a similar conclusion.

"Crown Melbourne is not presently suitable to hold the casino licence," Mr Finanzio told the inquiry in his closing submission.

"The evidence reveals serious misconduct, illegal conduct and highly inappropriate conduct, which has been encouraged or facilitated by a culture which has consistently put profit before all other considerations."

Mr Finanzio also called for the heads of Crown Resorts chair Helen Coonan and Crown Melbourne chief Xavier Walsh.

"He, along with Ms Coonan, cannot be the credible face of the change required at Crown,” Mr Finanzio said.

“Their mutual failings underscore the culture still at play at Crown."

Ms Coonan – a former Howard government minister – became Crown Resorts chair in February 2020 after joining as a director in 2011.

It emerged recently that Crown’s law firm, Arnold Bloch Leibler, had written to the Victorian government requesting an urgent meeting with Gaming Minister Melissa Horne, stating it was "not in the public interest for Crown to fail".

This was seen as an attempt to undermine the inquiry.

Mr Walsh, the inquiry heard previously, knew Crown Melbourne underpaid millions in Victorian gaming taxes for three years but did nothing about it until the day after the royal commission was announced.

Mr Finanzio’s call for Ms Coonan’s resignation was a marked change from the NSW inquiry, which was sympathetic in its assessment of Ms Coonan.

She was one of the few Crown Resorts directors to survive a boardroom purge after the Bergin report.

Notably, Ms Coonan and Ms Fewster are the only remaining directors at Crown Perth, which oversees the operations of its Perth casino.

Crown Perth had a powerful board for most of its existence, including the likes of James Packer, John Alexander, Ken Barton and Barry Felstead.

Its longest-serving member was Mr Poynton, who was a director from 2004 to February this year.

Mr Poynton emerged from the Bergin inquiry with his reputation intact.

He told the NSW inquiry he sought to improve governance standards at Crown Perth after he was appointed chair in 2019, with more frequent and longer board meetings.

The NSW inquiry said he had been let down by Crown management, notably Mr Felstead, who retired last year after a long career as one of Crown’s top executives.

Despite Bergin’s findings, the chair of the NSW casino regulator insisted Mr Poynton needed to resign from Crown Resorts’ board of directors because of his association with the company’s major shareholder and (hitherto) dominating force, Mr Packer.

The Perth inquiry has not yet revealed when it will call Mr Felstead, who was strongly criticised in the Bergin report.

It concluded Mr Felstead (and other staff) had been: “Failing to provide the Crown board with proper and accurate information and indeed in other instances failing to provide the board with any relevant information when such information should have been provided to it”.

The report also said it was “inexplicable” that Mr Felstead did not communicate key information regarding its operations in China to the company’s chief executive or its board.

Mr Felstead operated the VIP International business as though it was a separate business from the rest of the company sadly with tragic consequences,” the report concluded.

The WA inquiry’s second phase follows the completion of an interim report on the regulatory framework governing Crown, including the role played by the Gaming and Wagering Commission of Western Australia.

The interim report is due to be released by the WA government when parliament resumes in August.

While no details have emerged, the first phase of hearings painted a clear picture of a weak and under resourced regulator.

If the WA inquiry reaches similar conclusions to the NSW and Victorian inquiries, it will place premier Mark McGown in a challenging position.

When questioned, he has repeatedly emphasised the need to protect jobs at Crown, which employs 5,800 people at its Burswood casino and resort.

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