'Unfit' Star faces losing Sydney casino

·3-min read

Star Entertainment Group staked its Sydney casino licence in a high-risk, high-return game where criminals operated with impunity, laws were repeatedly breached and regulators were misled.

Its bluff as a responsible operator now called, Star faces being booted from NSW and fines of up to $100 million.

The NSW Independent Casino Commission says it's considering all possible penalties after a scathing report found Star was, and remains, unsuitable to hold a licence.

"Doing nothing is not an option," the commission's chief Phillip Crawford told reporters on Tuesday.

While noting the majority of the casino's 8000 employees "were doing the right thing", Mr Crawford said senior management's willingness to take risks for financial outcomes over numerous years "has been appalling".

Star allowed "known criminals to operate with impunity and to gamble almost without restraint," he said.

While some senior managers had since left, Star was still frustrating the regulator's efforts and retained an unwillingness to be adequately transparent, Mr Crawford said.

Report author Adam Bell SC found "extremely serious governance, risk management and cultural failures" had occurred in the casino group.

That culture "condoned unethical conduct, prioritised business goals over compliance objectives, courted risk and discouraged bad news," he said.

In an "inherently deceptive and unethical process", management circumvented Chinese capital flight laws and misled NAB and a foreign bank by disguising $908 million in gaming withdrawals as hotel expenses between 2013 and 2020.

The board learned of the practices in 2021, and was on notice that they and the banks had potentially been misled by management.

But it was left to the inquiry to uncover the "deeply troubling culture permeating the ranks of senior management" at Star, Mr Bell said.

The inquiry also examined Star's delayed decision to cut ties with junket operator Suncity in late 2021.

The decision came well after Star's regulatory affairs manager misled the gaming authority about Suncity's private gaming room in 2017, the inquiry report said.

In 2018, staff believed bags of cash could have been exchanged in a 'blind spot' for closed-circuit cameras, according to the inquiry's report.

It also said a report came to light in 2019 linking the junket operator to triad crime gangs, "large scale" money laundering and drug trafficking.

"Too often the question which was asked (by management) was 'how can we do this?', rather than 'should we be doing this?'," Mr Bell said.

Breaches of casino law included failing to tell the regulator when $3.7 billion in chips were destroyed in 2020.

However, no adverse findings were made about the board, given they had "little or no" idea of what went on "when no one is watching".

Hospitality Minister Kevin Anderson said he was outraged by Star's "flagrant disregard for the rules and regulations" and "totally reprehensible" deception of banks, the government and the people.

The NSW Labor opposition offered bipartisan support if legislative changes were required.

In addition to reviewing Star's licence, Mr Bell recommended all gamblers be forced to use electronic cards and to take breaks from pokies every three hours.

Employees should also be taught to identify conflicts of interest.

The inquiry led to the resignations of managing director Matt Bekier, board chairman John O'Neill, chief financial officer Harry Theodore, chief casino officer Greg Hawkins and chief legal and risk officer Paula Martin.

In a statement to the ASX on Tuesday, The Star said it was currently considering the report and the matters raised in a show cause notice issued by the NICC.

A response is required in 14 days.

Shares in the casino operator rose 12 cents to $2.78 after emerging from a trading halt on Tuesday afternoon.

That is about 35 per cent lower than this time last year when the Bell review was called.