Crown chairwoman fronts casino inquiry 

By Charlotte Lee Updated
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The public inquiry into Crown’s suitability to hold a casino licence in New South Wales has heard that the casino operator is yet to review its catastrophic governance failures that led to 19 staff being arrested in China.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Crown chairwoman Helen Coonan told the inquiry that it was inappropriate for her and the board to attack a former staff member who was arrested while working for the casino giant in China.

Ms Coonan said red flags that it was risky for Crown staff to remain in China, including the government announcing a crackdown on foreign casinos and a staff member being questioned on suspicion of organising illegal gambling tours, were never raised to the board because employees did not follow its “complex and comprehensive” management policies.

Ms Coonan, who has been a Crown director for 10 years and chairwoman since January, said the company had not conducted a review because of legal advice it would compromise its defence in the class action.

Crown shareholders are seeking compensation for at least $100 million they say they lost when Crown’s share price collapsed after the 2016 arrests.

She said Crown also did not want to overlap with the ILGA inquiry or a separate probe by the Victorian regulator into the incident. 

Commissioner Patrici Bergin said whether this meant there had been “no proper look back at what happened to try to take from those events steps forward to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

“That’s correct,” Ms Coonan said. “There’s not been a bottom-up, forensic pulling apart of it.”

Ms Bergin asked “why would it matter” if Crown’s legal case might be compromised.

“Isn’t it more important to get to the bottom of it, even if you are at risk in a legal case?” the former NSW Supreme Court judge asked, adding this was especially important for a company that had to justify holding a licence to operate a casino.

“Wouldn’t that be a better culture?”

Controversial full-page newspaper ad called into question 

Ms Coonan told Ms Bergin that Crown had legal advice that “you’d disregard… at your peril”, and also had shareholders to consider.

But “in retrospect, you could be right,” she said.

“Having not done it at the time, here is a good case for a review to see if there is anything we have missed,” she said.

Ms Coonan was also asked about an error-ridden statement she and her fellow director signed and published as a full-page newspaper ad last year attacking the reporting in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes that triggered the inquiry.

She agreed it was a mistake to include a paragraph questioning the integrity of former employee Jenny Jiang, one of the Crown employees arrested in China and who shared her experience of spending four weeks locked in a jail cell with thieves and drug dealers in the media expose.

Ms Bergin said the reference to Ms Jiang in the advertisement was “most unsatisfactory”.

“Yes, I agree it wasn’t appropriate,” Ms Coonan said.

She said the board relied too heavily on advice from management when it signed off on the statement and should have “softened” much of the language. That included the assertion Crown had a “robust” process to check junkets for criminal links and a comprehensive anti-money laundering system.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Adam Bell asked whether the board should have acknowledged in the statement that it in fact shared concerns, raised in the media reports, that Crown failed to heed warning signs in China due to a failure in risk management and corporate governance.

“I just don’t think we could have got it into an ad,” Ms Coonan said.

Ms Coonan will continue to give her evidence on Tuesday. 

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