Some of Australia’s highest-profile business people might face prosecution if investigations into Crown Resorts reveal serious misdeeds by the company.
Following investigations by Nine media leading to allegations of money laundering and buying influence in the bureaucracy, the Morrison government has ordered investigations by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.
Such investigations will put the company and its board under scrutiny, meaning some of the unusually prominent Crown board may face uncomfortable examination.
However Crown’s powerful board of directors has hit out at the claims with full-page advertisements in newspapers.
The advertisements have not appeared in Nine newspapers The Age and Sydney Morning Herald but competitor News Corp, claiming to be “setting the record straight in the face of a deceitful campaign against Crown”.
Crown’s executive chairman is John Alexander, a long-time confidant of the Packer family who was recruited by Kerry Packer at the height of the family’s media power from arch-rivals Fairfax where he ran major newspapers.
As the Packer money shifted from media to gambling, Mr Alexander followed, with James Packer putting him in charge of his Crown empire.
Another stellar member of the Crown board is former senator and one-time communications minister Helen Coonan.
Ms Coonan not only serves Crown, she chairs the new Australian Financial Complaints Authority and is a director of the Commonwealth-owned Snowy Hydro group.
Those government positions could be threatened if serious misconduct emerged from inquiries into Crown.
But on Wednesday night, the Crown board submitted an advertisement for publication in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald to set “the record straight in the face of a deceitful campaign against Crown”.
In it, the board took issue with 17 elements of the report, denying allegations of money laundering, criminal connections, poor governance and that it circumvented visa requirements.
The papers declined to publish the ad, but responded to all 17 matters, providing evidence to support its allegations.
Parliamentary crossbenchers raised the possibility of such misconduct, with Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie claiming “Crown has basically corrupted the Liberal Party and the Labor Party”, and there had been “allegations of Crown casino links to organised crime, money laundering, improper activity by consular officials”.
Newly elected independent member of the NSW seat of Warringah, Zali Steggall, said “the Australian public deserves to have confidence that no one is above the law”.
Another Crown director, long-standing financial markets operator John Poynton, is connected with a government instrumentality through his position on the board of the $148 billion Future Fund.
Fiona Balfour, policy chief with the Australian Shareholders Association said while his two roles could appear quite different, “Crown delivers a lot of money to the government budget”.
Other high-profile Crown board members include former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou, one-time Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon and founder of Australia’s largest media-buying operation and major philanthropist Harold Mitchell.
Ms Balfour said Crown had an unusually large board but it was “an $8 billion company and is highly regulated”.
Monash University academic and politics teacher Charles Livingstone said Crown directors were likely only to carry the same risk as directors of the banks that were found to have broken the law during the Hayne royal commission.
“Practically there is not much risk, as they would probably say ‘We didn’t know anything’.”
However, high-profile people such as those on the Crown board “could have their reputations severely damaged” if gross misconduct by the company were to emerge.
Bede Harris, a law professor at Charles Sturt University, said directors could be prosecuted by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) over not having acted in the best interests of the company if misconduct, which they should have known about, were revealed.
The man who created Crown Resorts as an international gambling giant, James Packer, stepped down from his board position two years ago and has also relinquished any executive role in the group.
However, he remains very influential through his 26 per cent shareholding and his relationship with Chinese gambling tycoon Lawrence Ho, who bought a 19.9 per cent stake from Mr Packer in May.