Board of Australia’s Crown rejected calls for regulator cooperation, chair tells inquiry

(Reuters) – The chair of embattled Crown Resorts Ltd (CWN.AX) said she had challenged the Australian casino operator’s “resistant” approach to a public inquiry that found it unsuitable for a gambling licence in Sydney, but that she was “overruled” by the board.

Helen Coonan, who became chair in January 2020, said she had also called for Crown’s CEO to be removed after his testimony last year at the public inquiry but the legal advice was that it “wouldn’t be a very sensible thing to do”.

The inquiry by New South Wales (NSW) state ultimately found Crown unsuitable for a gambling licence at its new A$2.2 billion resort in capital Sydney, citing links to money launderers, indifference to staff safety and billionaire shareholder James Packer’s untoward influence over the board.

The NSW inquiry triggered Royal Commissions – Australia’s most powerful type of public hearing – in two other states Victoria and Western Australia with operational Crown casinos, potentially jeopardising its main revenue source.

Coonan latest remarks, made on Thursday at Victoria’s Royal Commission into the suitability of Crown to hold a licence in Melbourne, reveals a divide on the board of the A$7.7 billion company on the level of cooperation with the 2020 NSW hearing.

“I became increasingly concerned about the strategy then as the evidence began to unfold, and I thought we needed to take a very different approach,” Coonan told the commission.

“I was overruled of course,” added Coonan, a former federal communications minister. “You still need to have numbers on a board, even if you’re the chair.”

Coonan also said she and the board were following legal advice with respect to their strategy at the NSW inquiry.

After Packer, who has a 37% stake in Crown, and high-ranking personnel of the casino operator testified through 2020, Coonan said she recommended that the CEO at the time, Ken Barton, leave to demonstrate the company’s commitment to changing culture.

“The legal advice was that that wouldn’t be a very sensible thing to do for the overall strategy, which would be Mr Barton rolling out reforms,” she said.

Barton ultimately stepped down as CEO in February, along with numerous directors, after the inquiry singled him out for criticism in its final report.