Careers on the line as The Star inquiry calls first witnesses

The reputations and careers of key executives at casino giant The Star Entertainment Group will be on the line when a royal commission-style inquiry begins interviewing witnesses next week to probe allegations of money laundering and poor governance at the company’s Sydney casino.

Among the witness list is Chinese billionaire Phillip Dong Fang Lee, who was a high-roller at The Star Sydney.

The Star Entertainment Group

The Star Entertainment Group Credit:Louise Kennerley

The calling of Mr Lee suggests the commission’s inquiry into The Star Sydney’s fitness to hold a casino licence will examine the highly controversial practice of allowing Chinese high rollers to withdraw gambling funds using special Chinese credit cards.

It has been suggested Mr Lee is one of The Star patrons who was offered use of this system to withdraw large amounts of gambling funds, but there is no suggestion Mr Lee was laundering money or involved in criminal activity. Multiple sources, aware of the inquiry’s focus, told this masthead the line of investigation will focus on whether Mr Lee used the “China Union Pay system” to move funds from China to Australia to purchase property.

It is alleged the practice involved disguising gambling activity as hotel expenses and was created to sidestep Chinese government capital flight laws and may have also breached Australian money laundering guidelines.

The commission is headed by Adam Bell, SC, the counsel assisting the Bergin Inquiry which in 2020 examined money laundering, criminal infiltration and governance failings at The Star’s rival Crown Resorts.

That inquiry ruled Crown was unfit to hold the licence for its new Sydney casino, which is yet to open more than a year later, throwing the James Packer-backed group into chaos and triggering a mass exodus from its senior executive team and board.

Mr Bell’s witness list will also have two former Star executives, Paul McWilliams and Tarnya O’Neil, who commissioned an explosive internal report by audit firm KPMG that warned The Star in 2018 it was failing to combat money laundering.

That report was made public by The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes late last year, in an investigation that reported allegations of The Star’s facilitation of money laundering and poor governance practices, and led to NSW’s Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority launching the Bell Inquiry.

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