James Packer has given up his fight to cling onto his massive stake in Crown Resorts, telling the Perth royal commission he doesn’t object to a forcible sell down, while also suggesting he was wrongly thrown under a bus by former chair Helen Coonan.
The reclusive billionaire fronted the probe on Friday, making the bombshell admission he did not attend a single board meeting as chair of Crown Perth’s Burswood Ltd between 2013 to 2016 after moving overseas – and should have either quit or attended them.
At that time, criminal junkets were infiltrating the venue, laundering ill-gotten money.
Mr Packer’s testimony came days after the Victorian royal commission recommended slashing his private investment vehicle Consolidated Press Holdings’ stake in Crown Resorts from 37 per cent to less than 5 per cent, which the state government accepted along with all other recommendations.
The NSW government also backed all suggestions stemming from last year’s explosive inquiry, including prohibiting a person from holding an interest of 10 per cent or more in a casino licensee without the prior approval of a new, powerful Independent Casino Commission.
Both recommendations came after Mr Packer’s influence on Crown was labelled “disastrous” as he was the driving force to secure more of the Chinese high-roller junket tours at the centre of the scandal, while Ms Coonan testified the company was beholden to CPH even after he quit the board in 2018.
Mr Packer’s lawyers had argued in responsive closing submissions to the Victorian royal commission that slashing his interest was not necessary.
“The mere holding of shares, even a large parcel of shares, in a holding company, does not of itself give a person influence over and with respect to the management or operation of the casino business,” they said.
But on Friday, Mr Packer told the Perth probe “I don’t object”.
It appears the deadline for the sell down needs thrashing out.
Victorian Commissioner Ray Finkelstein said it should happen by September 2024.
And Mr Packer has given various written undertakings to authorities, including no talks with the company about its operations outside of public forums before October 2026.
Mr Packer’s own barrister, Noel Huntley, sought clarity on Friday.
He asked if Mr Packer, by saying he accepted the condition to reduce his stake, was “intending by that to indicate an acceptance of selling down of that interest by 2024 or 2026?”
“I’d like to rely on my legal counsel for advice,” Mr Packer replied.
Mr Huntley also asked his client if he agreed with Ms Coonan’s dim assessment of CPH’s influence on the board, with Mr Packer saying he did not.
“CPH has always relied on the management of Crown Resorts to run Crown Resorts,” he said.
Neither Ms Coonan nor anyone else raised the “beholden” issue prior to the NSW inquiry, he said.
Meanwhile, counsel assisting Patricia Cahill warned Mr Packer that a luxury apartment he is in the process of buying above Crown’s new Barangaroo venue – which was denied a gaming licence in light of that inquiry – could lead to “incidental contact” and an ”inadvertent breach” of the no private chats undertaking.
“Do you have plans to occupy that yourself?” Ms Cahill asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” the intensely private tycoon replied.
“Do you think that if you do occupy that apartment, there will be any practical steps you need to take to ensure that you abide by your undertakings?” she followed up.
Mr Packer: “I don’t think so, but if the commission disagrees then I’m happy to look at it. I’d like to leave that to my lawyers.”
The NSW inquiry heard Mr Packer received special treatment after quitting Crown, with briefings on an almost daily basis under a “controlling shareholder protocol”, which was torn up after the evidence emerged.