Crown Melbourne CEO's job may be in danger

Crown Melbourne chief executive Xavier Walsh’s head may be on the chopping block after he failed to act on knowledge the casino may owe hundreds of millions in unpaid gaming taxes.

Crown Resorts non-executive director Jane Halton on Wednesday said she was “absolutely concerned” Mr Walsh knew for nearly three years the Southbank casino may have underpaid its gaming taxes and failed to act.

The inquiry into whether the James Packer-backed group can retain its Melbourne licence has heard Crown may owe the Victorian Government up to $272 million after claiming as losses promotions handed out through its pokies loyalty program since 2012.

Counsel assisting Penny Neskovcin QC said Ms Halton and Crown’s other directors had put their faith in Mr Walsh and had to assume he would do the right thing.

“Do you feel comfortable Crown Melbourne is in the right hands while Mr Walsh is CEO and director?” Ms Neskovcin asked Ms Halton.

The Crown Resorts director did not provide a direct response.

She said while Mr Walsh had been “very open, honest and straightforward”, there were a “range of issues” to manage at the company.

This included the fact Mr Walsh knew about the gaming tax issue since 2018 but only looked into it in February, two days after the royal commission was announced.

“I would say there are questions here, very definitely,” Ms Halton added. “I am concerned, that is absolutely correct.”

Ms Halton went on to say newly minted Crown Resorts chief executive Steve McCann, who faced the inquiry on Tuesday, would assess all the firm’s senior management going forward.

Ms Neskovcin further probed Mr Walsh’s suitability when she questioned another Crown non-executive director, Antonia Korsanos.

Ms Korsanos revealed she had a meeting with Mr Walsh on March 9 in which he raised “cultural” concerns, stemming from the 2012 document that had first alerted him Crown may have underpaid gaming tax.

But Ms Korsanos said he did not disclose the tax issue with her, claiming she first learned about it on June 7 – the same as Ms Halton.

Ms Neskovcin then asked Ms Korsanos whether she thought Mr Walsh was “trying to protect his own position”.

“I don’t know,” the non-executive director responded.

“If he knowingly didn’t tell me certain things, it’s worrying and it’s inappropriate.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Ray Finkelstein QC raised concerns about Crown Resorts’ flagged move to centralise the running of its casinos in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

The former Federal Court judge said such a move would place Crown’s decision-makers outside the jurisdiction of the Victorian gaming regulator, a situation he described as “wholly unacceptable”.

“The regulator has very little supervisory authority to deal with Crown Resorts – in a practical sense, almost none,” Commissioner Finkelstein said.

“I don’t like it … I’m making it obvious.”

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on Tuesday said the prospect of Crown Melbourne losing its casino licence is “very real” and that anyone who can’t deliver on the highest standards is “out”.

The state opposition will seek crossbench support to open an inquiry into the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation.

Shadow gaming minister Steph Ryan said the Crown Melbourne inquiry had been “nobbled” by a narrow terms of reference that did not include scrutiny of the regulator.

This followed former VCGLR regulators on Monday telling the ABC they were discouraged from reporting and examining alleged criminal activity inside Crown Melbourne.

The inquiry continues on Thursday with evidence expected from Crown Resorts executive chair Helen Coonan.

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Witnesses recount lives ruined at Crown

Binbin Du gambled at Crown Melbourne for at least eight hours every day, soon after his marriage broke down.

He plunged $300,000 into the Southbank casino during a two-month stretch from November 2019, sometimes clocking up more than 15 hours straight on the gaming floor.

But only once did a Crown staff member check on him.

“It was a shameful experience,” Mr Du told the inquiry into whether Crown can retain a licence for its Melbourne operations, in previously redacted evidence.

“I couldn’t see that I was seriously addicted.”

The law graduate, who grew up in China’s Jilin province before moving to Brisbane as a teenager in 2002, preferred to play baccarat.

He told Commissioner Ray Finkelstein QC, a former federal court judge, that this was the game of choice for most Chinese gamblers.

One Chinese man, Mr Du said, blew $2 million in about 30 minutes playing baccarat at Crown’s Mahogany Room – reserved for high-rollers – after the casino allowed him to bet $150,000 per hand, an increase of $50,000.

“I have so many acquaintances and friends (who’ve) ruined their lives, been affected or even ruined by gambling in Mahogany,” Mr Du said.

After losing his job in 2017, Mr Du started betting on sport to kill time and make some money.

But the losses piled up and his marriage broke down the following year.

He then started using Crown Bet to gamble online from Brisbane, which meant he earned points that he could use at Crown Melbourne.

Mr Du, gambling with money he had from selling all three of his properties, then started playing at the Southbank casino from November 2019.

He kicked off at the blackjack table, betting $50 per hand, before a Crown employee lured him to the Mahogany Room with a promotional program that rewarded gamblers with cash rebates, as well as food and beverage credits.

Losing thousands per day, Mr Du then asked Crown for a few nights of free accommodation. He was told he wasn’t gambling enough for such a perk.

It took six weeks, Mr Du told the inquiry, for a member of Crown’s responsible gambling team to pull him up and talk to him about budgeting.

But Mr Du said by this point he was “seriously addicted” and no longer cared about budgeting.

He later complained to a Mahogany Room host about his spiralling losses, only to be told: “Gambling is like water – you can either drink it or don’t drink.”

“There was no staff or dealers or floor managers approaching the gamblers … they just let gamblers lose more and more and more,” Mr Du told the inquiry.

“There is a culture of corporate arrogance and indifference.”

Mr Du told the inquiry he believes nothing has changed.

“It is business as usual,” he said.

Another man, who cannot be named, said his sister took her own life after becoming addicted to gambling at Crown Melbourne and falling prey to payday lenders.

He blamed the inducements offered by the casino, as well as the fact no one checked on his sister, who would gamble up to four nights a week.

She slept in her car, he said, after selling her house to feed the addiction, as well as stealing from her own family, including her sister’s engagement ring.

“This wasn’t people going to a venue with friends and having drinks and having fun,” the man said.

“This is someone … almost night after night … looking very despondent on her own. I just feel like it’s toxic, it’s dangerous.

“Inducements can destroy a life.”

The royal commission was set up by the Andrews’ Labor government after a NSW inquiry found Crown unsuitable to operate its newly built casino in Sydney’s Barangaroo.

Public hearings continue on Thursday.

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