Australia casino boss Packer says junkets help skirt China money controls

(Reuters) – Australian casino billionaire James Packer on Thursday said international tour operators helped Chinese gamblers circumvent Chinese capital controls, and that his company gave incorrect public statements distancing itself from the so-called junkets.

The Crown Resorts Ltd founder and one-third owner shared his perception of the travel agents who bring gamblers, often from China, to casinos at an Australian government inquiry. The inquiry is being held to determine whether the company should be allowed to run a A$2.2 billion ($1.6 billion) casino in Sydney’s tallest building.

So far during the inquiry, taking place just two months before the 75-floor tower’s scheduled opening, Packer has agreed that he sold a stake in Crown to Hong Kong’s Melco Resorts & Entertainment Ltd contrary to a ban on doing so.

In his third day testifying, Packer was asked about Crown’s relationships with junket operators after the company placed full-page advertisements last year attacking media reports saying Crown dealt with junkets linked to organised crime.

Asked if he knew China’s government had started limiting the flow of money offshore in 2013, Packer said he did. Asked if he viewed junket operators at the time as able to help Crown customers move money out of China, he said: “Yes I believe so”.

He said he never turned his mind to the possibility that junket operators were involved in money laundering. He said he had heard “rumours” about junkets being linked to organised crime but did not know if they were true.

In the newspaper advertisements, Crown described the media reports as “a deceitful campaign”, and said its only junket was Hong Kong-listed Suncity Group Holdings Ltd.

The lawyer questioning Packer, Naomi Sharp, told the inquiry that Crown used at least four junkets at the time including one called Suncity that was unrelated to the listed entity of the same name.

“I agree,” Packer replied.

Junket operator Suncity has not commented on the 2019 media reports. Hong Kong-listed Suncity has said it had no business in Australia, industry media previously reported.

Asked if he accepted that parts of the advertisement were wrong, Packer said, “Yes, with the benefit of hindsight I do”.

Asked if the advertisement’s claim that Crown had a robust vetting system for junket operators was wrong, Packer said, “With the benefit of hindsight I agree with you, Ms Sharp.”

Sharp also asked whether publishing an open letter with false information reflected poorly on Crown’s directors.

“Not at the time, if the directors had been given incorrect information,” Packer said. “With the benefit of hindsight I accept it reflects poorly.”