The Crown Resorts chairman, Helen Coonan, has admitted the company facilitated money laundering at its Melbourne casino but denied it was “turning a blind eye” to criminal activity instead blaming it on “ineptitude”.
The concession was made at the New South Wales Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority’s inquiry into Crown’s suitability to hold a Sydney casino licence.
Coonan was asked on Tuesday about Crown’s relationship with SunCity, a high-roller junket partner with alleged criminal links. She was challenged on why Crown did not shut down SunCity’s private room in Melbourne after evidence emerged of money laundering.
“Isn’t this a quintessential example of Crown Resorts turning a blind eye to the prospects of money laundering occurring at its casino?” the counsel assisting the inquiry, Naomi Sharp SC, asked.
“It may have been ineptitude or a lack of attention, I don’t think it was deliberately turning a blind eye, I do think that’s a different adjectival conclusion,” Coonan, a former Howard government minister, replied.
Among the evidence presented to Coonan – who became chairman in January – was an internal audit that found $5.6m in cash was stored in a cupboard in a private room in 2018 in breach of the casino’s $100,000 cash limit.
Sharp on Tuesday revealed Austrac in June 2017 emailed Crown informing it SunCity’s Macau-based boss Alvin Chau was a “foreign PEP”, or politically-exposed person, and alleging he had a “substantial” criminal history.
The financial crimes regulator queried why Crown would continue to associate with SunCity given the alleged links and given its purported support for Australian anti-money laundering rules. Chau is currently banned from entering Australia due to his alleged criminal links.
“It would be appreciated if you could provide us with documentation evidencing Crown’s consideration of the appropriateness of continuing to provide designated services to Mr Chau,” the Austrac email stated.
Coonan said she was not made aware of the email but “most definitely” should have been. Crown’s chief legal officer, Joshua Preston, had been made aware of the email, Sharp said, but his response to Austrac was not disclosed.
The Nine media group last year aired allegations Crown turned a blind eye to money laundering by organised crime figures and the attempted sale of 19.99% of its stock from mogul James Packer’s private company to Melco Resorts.
Melco was run by the son of the since-deceased Macau gambling king Stanley Ho, with whom Crown was banned from associating by the NSW government.
In late July 2019, the Crown board – including Coonan who was not yet chairman – issued a statement to the stock exchange arguing it had a “robust process for vetting junket operators” and SunCity’s parent company was regulated and listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. This was not correct.
Crown also placed the statement in the pages of several Australian newspapers as a full-page advertisement.
In her evidence on Tuesday, Coonan said that it was “difficult to agree” that Crown was “facilitating” money laundering.
The inquiry’s commissioner, Patricia Bergin SC, said even assuming the failure was a result of “ineptitude” Crown still failed the community because people would know they could launder money there.
“The community loses because you’ve got money laundering in your casino … and Crown loses because it’s seen as an inept company lacking in attention,” Bergin said.
“And the bystander could reasonably conclude that this conglomerate of ineptitude, lack of attention and failing to intervene facilitated money laundering. Would you not agree with that?”
“Yes,” Coonan replied. “It was the turning the blind eye that I didn’t agree with, which I think is a different degree of understanding.”
Coonan’s evidence comes a day after watchdog Austrac announced it was investigating potential non-compliance with anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws at its Melbourne operation.
Crown’s board will front a virtual annual general meeting of shareholders on Thursday.
– with Australian Associated Press