Crown wanted to reinstate controversial UnionPay credit cards for Melbourne VIPs

by Mia Chapman Last Updated
Tabcorp boss fronts government committee examining credit cards and online gambling

A Crown Resorts executive wanted to revive an illegal high roller UnionPay credit cards scheme after the arrest of China-based Crown staff in 2016.

The Australian Financial Review reports that during evidence given to the Victorian royal commission into Crown, Jan Williamson, Crown Melbourne’s head of the legal department, said she was told to resist any requests from the executive in charge of VIP high rollers, Ishan Ratnam, to bring back the illegal practice.

Crown admitted in June that it had breached Victorian law between 2012 and 2016 by allowing its VIP high rollers to make UnionPay credit cards charges of up to $500,000 to their hotel accounts in exchange for casino chips.

The inquiry heard that in 2018, Mr Ratnam wanted to revive the cheme, but Ms Williamson’s then boss, chief legal officer Joshua Preston, told her to “maintain the stance” against using China UnionPay cards.

“Josh mentioned to me, Mr Preston I should say, that the VIP wanted to bring back the China UnionPay process. I didn’t really know what he was talking about. And then Josh said: ‘It’s not happening, We’re going to maintain the stance against it. So don’t let them come and say it’s okay’,” she said.

But Mr Packer’s lawyer, Orin Bigos, QC, questioned her knowledge of the involvement of his company, Consolidated Press Holdings, which holds a 37 per cent stake in the $8.6 billion casino giant.

She conceded she didn’t have “personal knowledge” of CPH’s involvement. Rather, it came from records of meetings about bringing the process back.

New responsible gambling code made “on the fly”

Last Thursday, the new financial compliance chief, Steven Blackburn, told the probe he expected a review that was under way of the illegal program to show indications of money laundering and for the final amount churned through the scheme to surpass the $160 million already identified because the review only considered China UnionPay cards.

Mr Blackburn later made the concession that he approved a new responsible gambling code “on the fly” that still allowed gamblers to play for 18 hours, despite it being contrary to his “common sense” and the academic literature, but was convinced by his team at Crown to keep the long period.

Mr Blackburn – an anti-money laundering and financial crime specialist without responsible gambling experience – was unexpectedly asked to take control over the casino’s responsible gambling department after Crown scrambled to improve its lax policies following Commissioner Finkelstein flagging it as a key issue when weighing whether the casino operator would keep its Southbank licence.

Commissioner Finkelstein has made it clear the way Crown manages problem gambling will weigh heavily on his decision on the gambling giant’s suitability to hold Victoria’s only casino licence.

“Contrary to the literature, contrary to your best view, why did you go along with it?” he asked.

“Going in with a purely sort of layman’s perspective on it, I can tell you it startled me,” Mr Blackburn replied.

“I thought that didn’t make sense. I don’t know anyone that would spend 18 hours doing anything continuously, it makes no sense to me.

“I’m trying to apply common sense and also be informed by my team who are across this.”

Doesn’t make sense at all,” Commissioner Finkelstein said. “Unless you’re suffering from something.”

Responsible gambling measures in the spotlight

Mr Blackburn then committed to “revisiting” the expertise of his team, signaling that some might be forced to quit.

This comes as the inquiry has heard Crown hired just 12 responsible service of gambling staff to monitor tens of thousands of patrons and leaving problem gamblers to punt for 96 hours without leaving the casino.

Crown executive chairman Helen Coonan is scheduled to appear at the royal commission in early July, in order to convince an overly sceptical Commissioner Finkelstein of her attempts to overhaul the company’s corporate governance and cultural problems.

In particular, Ms Coonan will have to explain Crown’s lax responsible gambling policies and why she withheld from the board information about a potential tax rort, which could be as much as $272 million.

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