Victoria’s royal commission into Crown faces legal questions

By Noah Taylor Updated
Royal commission hears that Crown was reluctant to implement tighter money laundering controls

A law firm assisting Victoria’s royal commission has been found to have also advised the casino operator on its Barangaroo casino project in Sydney and worked for Crown’s second-largest shareholder.

It has prompted the Victorian opposition and a prominent industry expert to raise concerns about the firm’s potential conflict of interest, The Age reports.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth is one of the firms hoping to provide solicitors to the Victorian probe into Crown’s suitability to run a casino in Victoria.

Premier Andrew Andrews, who for years declined to investigate Crown amid money laundering allegations, said in February that he would be willing to strip Crown of its casino licence if the royal commission recommends this.

Coors states on its website that it advised Crown on elements of the bid to build a casino in NSW.

Crown’s Sydney foray promoted authorities there to look into Crown’s operations and determine that the company was unsuitable to hold a licence in NSW because it facilitated money laundering by organised crime units at its Melbourne hotel.

One of Corrs’ major clients is Blackstone Group, the New York-based private equity firm that became Crown Resorts’ second largest shareholder in April when it bought a $550 million, 10 per cent stake in the operator.

Casino industry experts believe Blackstone may buy some of James Packer’s Crown shares if the billionaire sheds ownership as the company implements reforms requested by the NSW casino regulator and faces inquiries in Victoria and WA.

Corrs’ website said it has worked for Blackstone on some of “Australia’s largest and most complex transactions with a value of more than $7 million, including property deals in Victoria, NSW and South Australia.

There were concerns Corrs’ relationship with Blackstone could pose a conflict of interest.

Monash University gambling regulation expert Charles Livingstone said it would be a “terrible look” if the government chose Corrs to provide the legal heft behind the commission.

He said Blackstone was in the box seat to purchase a bigger state in Crown if Mr Packer sold his shares.

The academic said Blackstone had an interest in Crown Resorts retaining its share value and its Victorian casino licence.

“That’s a pretty powerful conflict,” Dr Livingstone said.

Former VCGLR boss says no conflict of interest exists

He added that solicitors advising the counsel assisting the commission, a barrister who questions witnesses, have a strong influence over which issues and individuals the commission spends time examining, meaning they hold sway over the probe’s direction.

State opposition gaming spokeswoman Steph Ryan said the state government needed to guarantee there was no conflict, either real or perceived, “if Victorians are to have confidence in the inquiry.”

But Peter Cohen, who ran the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation until 2010 and is now a consultant to gambling companies and the government said it would be difficult to find a law firm with adequate resources to run a royal commission that did not have any conflicts among its clientele.

“I don’t see how it interferes with the royal commission,” he said.

A government spokesperson said the commission would “need to independently manage any conflicts of interest, whether they be actual, potential or perceived, at every step of the process.

“We’re making sure that those who hold a casino licence in Victoria uphold the highest standards of probity and integrity and that they’re accountable for their actions,” she said.

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