SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian billionaire James Packer said on Wednesday he “forgot” his casino firm Crown Resorts Ltd <CWN.AX> was banned from dealing with associates of Hong Kong’s Stanley Ho when he orchestrated a part-buyout by a firm controlled by Ho’s son.
Packer’s actions as Crown’s largest shareholder are being scrutinised as the New South Wales state government holds an inquiry to decide if the company should be allowed to go ahead with its A$2.2 billion ($1.6 billion) casino tower in Sydney just months before its scheduled opening.
Under questioning, Packer acknowledged the company he founded agreed not to give Hong Kong casino magnate Ho or his associates any beneficial interest in Crown Resorts when it obtained clearance in 2014 to build the 75-floor tower.
However, Packer announced a sale last year of one-fifth of Crown to Melco Resorts & Entertainment Ltd <MLCO.O>, a company run by Ho’s son Lawrence. On Wednesday, Packer said he assumed his lawyers would pick up any legal issues.
“I forgot, Mr Bell,” Packer told the lawyer leading the inquiry, Adam Bell. “I thought the legal work that the CPH team … were preparing would cover all eventualities,” he said, referring to his private company Consolidated Press Holdings.
Ho, who died in May aged 98, was banned from any involvement in Australian casinos amid widespread reports alleging links to organised crime, which he denied.
Melco ultimately bought half of the 20% Crown stake Packer had put up for sale – and subsequently sold it – and cancelled plans to buy the other half.
Packer’s evidence also covered a period when 16 staff were jailed in China in 2016 for violating anti-gambling laws, prompting an exit from foreign markets, while Packer himself stepped back from public view for personal reasons.
Testifying via videolink, Packer acknowledged requesting frequent trading updates at least from November 2018 through February 2019 and giving orders about the running of Crown despite holding no board or operational role since March 2018.
In a 2019 email read out by the inquiry, in the months before the Melco sale announcement, Packer wrote to then chief financial officer Ken Barton, “you have had your heads in the sands this year. Make sure, for your own sake, we achieve the financial year 2020 plan”.
Packer denied the email was a threat and said, as a large shareholder, “I was under the impression that I could communicate the way I was communicating.”
“I believed that I was fully aligned with Crown Resorts shareholders and that my requests were in all shareholders’ best interests.”
In a November 2018 email to Crown’s then chairman John Alexander read out to the inquiry, Packer gave permission for Alexander to cut costs and wrote, “I’m over being Captain Good Guy to everyone. Go hard, you have my blessing.”
Packer continues giving evidence on Thursday.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Christopher Cushing)